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Dryness heralds moment of truth for US winter wheat

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The southern Plains is poised to reveal the extent of wetness damage to its wheat crop, as drier weather encourages farmers into the fields belatedly to start their harvest.

"It is clear skies here, for a second day," said Mark Welch at Texas A&M University, spurring the crop dry down needed to allow farmers to harvest winter wheat some of which was ready for reaping two weeks ago, before inundations which killed an estimated 22 people in Texas.

"The wave pattern in the jet stream is changing, as the calendar turns over to June," said Gail Martell at Martell Crop Projecttions.

"Much drier weather is predicted this week in the southern Great Plains following relentless rainfall in May that flooded Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas."

Official meteorologists estimate that 37,300bn gallons of water fell over Texas last month, enough to cover the state eight inches deep.

And many farms in Texas, and neighbouring Oklahoma, have certainly lost out, if in terms of lost quality, quantity or both.

Lost production

Ahead of harvest results, estimates for losses actually showed somewhat modest figures.

Terry Reilly at Futures International estimates that the US Department of Agriculture will cut its estimate for US winter wheat harvested area by some 500,000-700,000 acres.

Given that the USDA has estimated the harvested area in Texas at 3.75m acres, and Oklahoma at 4.10m acres, that represents at most 9% in area losses, assuming the lost area is limited to the two states.

(Mr Reilly also sees some 100,000 acres extra of soft red winter wheat lost due to wet weather in parts of the Midwest.)

In terms of volume, CWB said that "early estimates reveal that potentially 25m-30m bushels of hard red winter wheat have been lost" in Texas and Oklahoma, where "severe storms resulting in flooding have caused damage to the crops and delayed harvest".

This out of a total US harvest expected by the US Department of Agriculture to come in at 2.09bn bushels – so at worst some 1.4% of total domestic wheat production has been lost.

'Widespread sprout damage'

But there is also the question of the quality of what is harvested in the southern states.

And that could show a more severe setback for crops which were ripe when the rain hit, and so vulnerable to harm from moisture.

"Sprout damage on wheat this year may be widespread," Dr Welch said.

"We are looking at this year potentially of half of grain production in Texas" being affected, "and it could spread into Oklahoma as well".

"Around here we are going to have sprouting damage," caused when moisture encourages seed germination in kernels, even when still in the ear.

'Can be a problem'

Sprouting damage in turn causes quality problems such as the depression of protein levels, and reduces milling quality.

"Really, all that much of this will be fit for is feed.

"And that can be a problem for farmers," especially those with contracts to deliver higher specification grain, but also in terms of a local glut of lower-quality supplies for which sufficient buyers can be difficult to find.

"It is hard to develop a market, if there is a lot of this grain at one time in one place," Dr Welch told Agrimoney.com.

'Higher incidence of plant diseases'

And then there are the disease threats encouraged by rain, with moisture also making it difficult for farmers to get onto fields and apply fungicides.

"Unprecedented rains in the southern plains and cooler than normal temperatures have not only put harvest behind schedule, but also resulted in reports of higher incidence of plant diseases," said US Wheat Associates, which promotes the sale of US wheat abroad.

"Wheat quality may be affected and will be monitored as harvest gets underway."

And disease is a problem being found in elevated levels in some states seeing less significant rains, but enough to encourage infections on plants stressed earlier in the season by a lack of rainfall.

In Nebraska, a survey last week of southern areas "found winter wheat with severe levels of stripe rust," the University of Nebraska–Lincoln said.

'Potentially surprising'

Still, it is a comfort for wheat buyers that such concerns appear not yet to have affected the apparent quality overall of the US crop, with the US Department of Agriculture surprising investors last week by pegging the crop at 45% in "good" or "excellent" condition, in line with that the week before.

The resilient rating, despite the southern Plains inundations, was a big reason why wheat futures fell last week.

"In western Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska, crops still maturing have benefitted from the recent moisture and have improved crop prospects from early projections," US Wheat Associates said.

A hope for wheat bulls is that the next set of US crop condition data, due later on Monday, may show up more damage.

"Keep in mind, crop conditions after the Memorial Day weekend did not factor in heavy rains of that weekend," said Mike Zuzolo, adding that he had confirmed that with a USDA official.

"This could make Monday afternoon's crop conditions extra important and potentially surprising to the trade."

By Mike Verdin

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