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Spring wheat issues mount as US drought spreads

Grain Brokers Australia, June 8, 2021

A US spring wheat crop growing at Colton in the east of Washington state photographed on May 23 and in need of yield-preserving rain. Photo: Art Schultheis

THE NORTHERN Great Plains of the United States is copping a hiding from the weather gods, above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation forecast for the next two weeks adding to the drought woes currently being experienced across much of the north and western reaches of the country.

Scattered showers are expected across the northern Plains this week, but the falls are unlikely to be enough to avoid net drying in most areas. The ridge of high pressure that brought hot temperatures to the northernmost states last week and over the weekend is expected to return as the rains recede.

Rainfall deficits are accruing with 70pc of the spring wheat area in some degree of drought. Almost half of the belt received less than 50pc of their average May rainfall, and it will be in big trouble if substantial and widespread precipitation fails to arrive in June. There is a chance of some rain if temperatures cool off, but there is no soaker in the forecast, which only leads to greater and greater deficits as the month rolls on.

Exceptional drought

North Dakota is the biggest spring wheat growing state in the US, producing almost half of the country’s output in 2020. But the crop was getting toasted last Friday with temperatures exceeding 37°C in many areas, winds as high as 50 kilometres/hour and humidity as low as 17pc. While not as extreme, the hot, windy conditions persisted for much of the weekend, adding further stress to an already struggling crop.

According to last week’s US Drought Monitor Report, almost 18pc of North Dakota is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, the worst categorisation in the US drought model, with another 59pc in the second-worst category, extreme drought. According to the drought monitor service, almost 99pc of the state is currently suffering from some degree of drought, and it is the state’s most intense and widespread drought this century.

The drought isn’t quite as bad in South Dakota, but it is still a major concern for farmers, particularly along the border with North Dakota. The area suffering extreme drought conditions has decreased, but 94pc of the state falls into the abnormally dry category, or worse. In Minnesota, about 13pc of the state reported moderate drought, with 73pc of the state reported abnormally dry conditions, or worse.

Lowest early June rating since 1988

The impact of the drought across the northern Plains is evident in the USDA’s weekly Crop Progress Report. Spring wheat conditions were added for the first time this season on May 25, with the overall good-to-excellent category debuting at 45pc. That slipped two points to 43pc last week, the lowest early June rating since 1988. This is also drastically lower than the 80pc good-to-excellent rating for the same week in 2020.

In North Dakota, only 31pc of the current crop made the good-to-excellent rating category, potentially putting a big dent in US spring wheat production if the drought persists. The story in South Dakota is slightly better at 45pc. However, ratings in both states are expected to take a hit when the numbers are updated this week. At the same time last year, the good-to-excellent ratings in North and South Dakota were 83 and 74pc, respectively.

There continue to be stories across the Dakotas of spring wheat that failed to emerge due to parched soils and farmers ploughing in crops and replanting with other spring grains. In North Dakota, 97pc of the spring wheat area had been planted by May 30. Nonetheless, some farmers are saying that if they don’t get meaningful rains by mid-month, there will be some prevent plant declarations. Emergence was running at 76pc at the end of May.

Crop conditions in the eastern reaches of the northern Plains are much better than the Dakotas, with the USDA calling Minnesota’s spring wheat areas 84pc good-to-excellent. That was slightly higher than the 81pc rating on June 1 last year. The southeast parts of the state received good rains in May, but moisture deficits persist.

Multi-year deficits in high latitudes

The dryness in the northern latitudes of the US has been building for months, and the long-range forecasters say the weather pattern appears to be setting up for a longer-term blocking ridge across the northern Plains. However, it is not only the spring wheat regions of the US that are being troubled by this system. Just across the border, the extremely dry climatic conditions are exacerbating an already dire situation for the Canadian spring wheat farmer.

The drought conditions ridge up into Manitoba, Saskatchewan and parts of Alberta. Millions of acres of the Canadian Prairies have inadequate topsoil and subsoil moisture levels at the moment. The soil moisture deficits have been building following two years of below-average precipitation. In some districts the drought is unprecedented, having just recorded the driest nine-month period since records began in 1895.

The Russian wheat areas at similar latitudes are also in trouble. About 50pc of their spring wheat belt is suffering from an intense drought that has hampered germination and crop establishment. The month of May for Russia’s spring wheat areas is reported to have been the second driest in the last 40 years.

The potential impact on global wheat production is mounting. If this week’s weather forecasts fail to show significant relief in the 14-day runs, then the price action on Minneapolis will get very interesting. The December contract closed up US$10.50/t ahead of the weekend and has rallied $43/t, or almost 17pc, since the most recent low on May 26. If this continues, the Chicago and Kansas wheat contracts will have to get more keenly involved in the chase.

High global grain prices and rampant demand from the Middle Kingdom have put a spring in the step of farmers across the world. While not desirable, production issues in parts of the US, Canada and Russia will potentially generate export opportunities for Australia. We can only hope that the current winter crop production potential down under is maintained through the spring and manifests itself in another big crop for the Aussie farmer.

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