U.S. winter wheat farmers plant in dust as Plains drought persists

CHICAGO, Oct 17 (Reuters) – With planting about halfway through, the 2023 U.S. hard red winter wheat crop is already hampered by drought in the heart of the Southern Plains, experts said wheat.

Planting plans could be scaled back in the US breadbasket despite historically high prices for this time of year, reflecting rising global demand and shrinking global wheat supply that is expected to end the 2022 marketing year/ 23 at a six-year low. The tight supply was exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine which disrupted grain exports from the Black Sea region.

Drought threatens Kansas, the leading winter wheat-producing state, and Oklahoma in two ways: discouraging farmers who have yet to plant from trying, while threatening crops already in the ground from developing properly .

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“It’s kind of a grim situation,” said Kent Winter, who farms in Andale, Kansas, outside of Wichita. He said he normally sows in mid-October, but has not sown wheat yet this year.

If there is no rain in the next 10 days, it will begin to “dust” the crop and hope for moisture. Final planting dates for full crop insurance coverage are approaching, ranging from October 15 in Northwest Kansas to November 15 in the Southeast.

Without moisture, wheat sprouts may not come out of the ground. Even delayed emergence would threaten yield potential by narrowing the window for plants to develop a strong root system and grow more stems, called tillers, before winter.

“It puts a nail in the coffin,” said Mark Hodges, agronomist for Plains Grains Inc, an Oklahoma-based group that tests the quality of wheat. Hodges said, “If you don’t have the tillers in the fall, it’s really hard to catch up to that number in the spring.”

Fears of a supply crunch are underscored by the Kansas City wheat futures contract in July trading around $9.40 a bushel, the highest price on record for a new crop contract of July at this time of year, in the heart of the fall planting season.

About two-thirds of wheat in the United States, among the world’s top five exporters, is grown as a winter crop rather than a spring one.

While Plains farmers would like to take advantage of high prices, dry weather may discourage growers from committing to high-priced seed and fertilizer.

As a result, Justin Gilpin, general manager of the Kansas Wheat Commission, expected the number of Kansas wheat acres planted for harvest in 2023 to remain flat with the 7.3 million acres planted for 2022.

Winter was okay. “With the price of wheat, many operators were planning to at least match or even increase their acreage for the coming year. But this drought is having a huge influence on the plans,” he said.

Poor emergence could also have a longer term cost. The wheat helps anchor the topsoil to the plains, protecting it from wind erosion.

“No farmer wants to see their soil blow away. So go ahead and plant some wheat, and hope to get it to sprout before winter,” said Martin Kerschen, who farms in Garden Plain, Kansas.

Wheat is a crop renowned for its hardiness that can bounce back from challenges with bad weather. But according to forecasts, the drought will persist in the southern plains until December.

In Kansas, 27% of the state is in “exceptional drought,” the most extreme category, and virtually the entire state is abnormally dry, according to the latest weekly US Drought Monitor report prepared by a consortium of climatologists.

One of the main drivers of drought is the La Nina weather phenomenon, which tends to favor hot and dry conditions in the plains. The current La Nina is in its third year.

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Reporting by Julie Ingwersen; Editing by David Gregorio

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