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Cold winter causes 'record' drop in wheat ratings
It is not just hard red winter wheat which has suffered during the unusually cold US winter, but soft and white varieties too, according to official data which revealed that crops deteriorated further than most investors expected.

The US Department of Agriculture - in its first, and delayed, national crop rating of 2014 - pegged the winter wheat crop as of Sunday at 35% "good" or "excellent", an unusually low reading for the time of year.

Indeed, it was 1 point below the condition rating a year before, when seedlings had the disadvantage of a poor start, suffering from the tail end of the 2012 US drought, the worst in a generation.

The latest reading was also at the low end of market expectations, and well below the 62% of seedlings rated "good" or "excellent" at the end of November as they went into winter dormancy.

"The 27 percentage point drop is the largest ever seen over winter, spurred by both severe dryness in the Great Plains and periodic bouts of winter freeze damage," Luke Mathews at Commonwealth Bank of Australia said.

'Continued cold temperatures'

Indeed, the data revealed that the deterioration was not marked not just in hard red winter wheat, as grown in the southern Plains, where drought has re-emerged, but in areas growing other varieties too.

Although the crop in the southern Plains state of Oklahoma showed the biggest deterioration over winter, with the proportion of its crop rated good or excellent slumping by 62 points to 15 points, the second worst-performing crop was in Ohio, the biggest growing state for soft red winter wheat.

Here the proportion of seedlings rated good or excellent fell by 40 points over the winter to 45%, with too much rain, rather than too little, the problem.

In terms of fieldwork, "the majority of fields have yet to be touched due to continued cold temperatures and flooding from snow melt combined with heavy rain", USDA scouts said, although farmers have prioritised top dressing of wheat among their tasks.

"While producers are finding themselves behind on spring fieldwork, producers typically would not begin planting corn for another week and soybeans until late April," the scouts noted.

'Very limited fieldwork'

In Michigan, another major grower of soft red winter wheat the benchmark type traded in Chicago, if behind hard red winter wheat and sometimes hard red spring wheat in US production the proportion of wheat rated good or excellent tumbled 22 points to 58% over winter.

Again, "fieldwork has been very limited due to wet conditions and snow melt", USDA scouts said.

And in Illinois too, where farmers have also braved unusually wet and cold weather, crop's strong autumn start gave way to a more modest spring reading, with the proportion rated good or excellent down 25 points at 50%.

White winter

For white winter wheat, the condition of the crop in the major producing state of Washington, which has seen heavy rains in western areas, also deteriorated strongly over the winter, by 38 points to 39% rated good or excellent.

That put the Washington white winter wheat crop behind that of Oregon, where dryness is a bigger issue, with 93% of the state rated as suffering some kind of drought and where seedlings were rated 44% good or excellent, down 15% over the winter.

The third major white winter wheat state, of Idaho, has the crop rated the best in the US, at 78% good or excellent, albeit a drop of 18 points over the winter.

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