US winter-wheat area in grips of worsening drought

Grain Brokers Australia, February 22, 2022

PUTTING the influence of the Ukraine crisis aside, the drought situation in the United States is becoming a huge concern for global wheat supply in 2022. Much of the nation west of the Mississippi Valley is either in drought or abnormally dry, and the latest long-range weather outlook shows very little relief as the critical spring months approach.

Large swathes of the US look set to heat up with warmer-than-average temperatures forecast this spring due to the La Niña weather phenomenon. Most of the 48 contiguous states are either drought-declared or in danger of sliding into drought if there is no rainfall relief in the next few months.  According to the National Drought Mitigation Centre, the current dry is the most expansive for continental US since January 2013. Drought has been in place in the western and north-western states since last summer. While it has improved in some areas, such as the Dakotas, it has now spread east into much of the Central and Southern Plains, from eastern Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas into Texas, Oklahoma and parts of the Lower Mississippi Valley.

In last week’s update for the National Integrated Drought Information System, 57 per cent of continental US was categorised as being in drought, with a further 15pc classified as abnormally dry. According to the National Centres for Environmental Information, more than 40pc of mainland US has been in the grips of drought for the past 70 weeks. Overall, 68pc of the US winter-wheat area was in drought, as was 78pc of the durum wheat area, 76pc of the barley area, and 75pc of the sorghum area.

The temperature outlook from the desert Southwest and central Rockies to much of the Southern Plains is warmer than usual across March, April and May. The only parts of the country that are expected to be wetter than average over that period are the Ohio Valley, southern Great Lakes and parts of the north-west.

Looking dire for HRW

The plight of Hard Red Winter-wheat (HRW) production on the Southern Plains is becoming dire. According to last week’s drought-monitor update, 81.3pc is drought declared, with a third of that area experiencing extreme drought. Recent precipitation across Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle and eastern New Mexico did very little to relieve the situation. Montana, in the north-west, is in a very similar condition. Most of the remaining High Plains states of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Colorado, and Wyoming are only slightly better off, being in severe to moderate drought.

The concern in the US is if spring rain is poor, the drought can be locked in place into the summer, as parched soil heats faster, leaving less moisture to evaporate into the air. Basically, the drought can perpetuate itself into summer and the early autumn. Once summer arrives and the jet stream migrates toward the northern US states, the only drought relief in the south would be from the erratic summer thunderstorm season originating in the desert Southwest.

The USDA doesn’t issue regular crop-progress reports over the winter, with the National Agricultural Statistics Service releasing monthly reports for selected states only. The most recent USDA crop report was published on November 29 last year, when it reported 44pc of the national crop was in good-to-excellent condition.  Weekly USDA reports resume on April 4, and in the absence of significant rainfall over the next six weeks, the first national rating for 2022 is expected to be much lower.

January proves tough

During January, condition ratings for winter wheat fell in most US Plains states, including Kansas and Oklahoma. In Kansas, the top-producing winter-wheat state, 30pc of the crop was rated as being in poor or very poor condition at the start of February, down 3 points from a month earlier. In Oklahoma, just 16pc of the state’s wheat crop was rated good to excellent, down from 20pc on January 3. And to add insult to injury, there are forecasts for winterkill night-time temperatures across Kansas and parts of Oklahoma midway through this week.

While there is some snow cover on parts of the High Plains, the overall forecast theme favours worsening drought conditions, especially across Kansas and Nebraska. The drought-monitor analysis put topsoil moisture ratings for Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado at 77pc, 73pc and 82pc short to very short respectively. Unsurprisingly, the poor-to-very poor crop rating in each of those states reflects very similar numbers.

Winter wheat is the dominant wheat species in the US each year, with farmers planting 13.92 million hectares in the fall of 2021 for harvest in the spring and summer of 2022. While this is the tenth smallest on record, it is the largest area planted to winter wheat since 14.63 million hectares (Mha) was seeded in the 2015-16 season. Apart from the five intervening seasons, one has to go back to the 1908-09, 1909-10, 1910-11 and the 1912-13 seasons to find the other four smaller seeded areas.

Of the total area planted to winter wheat in the US last autumn, 69pc, or 9.63Mha, was seeded to HRW wheat, up 1.3pc from 9.51Mha a season earlier. The Soft Red Winter-wheat area made up 20.6pc of the total at 2.86Mha, 6.3pc higher than the 2.69Mha planted in the autumn of 2020. The estimated white winter wheat area was 2pc higher year on year at 1.44Mha.

Tensions in Ukraine will undoubtedly be a key driver of the global wheat market until there is some sort of lasting resolution. However, as we move into the Northern Hemisphere spring, the plight of the US winter-wheat crop, and other problem areas, will gain traction as a market influence. At the moment, it is merely a byline in the Black Sea standoff, but should the dry continue, particularly in the US, it could well become the headline act.

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