Volatility ahead for Northern Hemisphere winter crop

Grain Brokers Australia, March 2, 2021

Heavy snow blanketed many cropping areas of the US last month. Photo: Watco Rail

AS THE northern hemisphere spring approaches, the winter-crop condition throughout Europe and North America is fast becoming a significant market focus, especially after an extremely cold weather system swept across both continents in mid-February.

In Europe, the winter has been marked by three distinct cold spells. The third and most pronounced of these occurred in the second week of February, with several regions experiencing double-digit sub-zero temperatures. In the process, some registered their lowest minimum temperatures in 50 years. Minimal frost damage is expected in areas that lost snow cover due to warmer conditions ahead of the cold spell.

The February cold snap also affected the largest area of the three, sweeping through Scandinavia and the Baltic States before moving south and west through Poland, Germany and parts of France, and finally through south-eastern Europe to Turkey. Nevertheless, production impacts are expected to be limited, as most affected areas had developed adequate winter hardiness and were protected by a snow-cover layer during the coldest periods.

Weather warms

The weather has turned decidedly warmer in the two weeks since the freeze. Rainfall has also been average or better, which could lead to early emergence from dormancy. Those crops would be at higher risk from sub-zero temperatures, especially if exposed with little snow cover. The latest 10-day forecast suggests mostly warm and dry conditions will dominate the majority of continental Europe.

The winter crops in France, the European Union’s biggest grain producer, appear to have successfully negotiated the cold winter months, and remain in excellent condition. Favourable growing conditions are expected to see the winter crop surpass last year’s output, which struggled amid a wet planting campaign and a late-season drought.

According to the French Government agency FranceAgriMer, France’s winter wheat crop was rated at 87-per-cent good to excellent as of 22 February. This may be down from 96pc good to -excellent in November 2020, but it is up a percentage point from the prior week, and is well ahead of the 64pc for the same rating category at this time last year.

Similarly, the French barley fields overwintered well, with FranceAgriMer rating the crop 83pc good to excellent, steady week on week, down from 94pc in the final update of 2020, but notably higher than the 66pc at this time last season.

Conditions improved in Russia in late January, topping up the snow cover in many districts. However, in early February, a spell of warmer weather resulted in widespread snowmelt across southern Russia, leaving some regions exposed to the mid-month cold snap. The impact on yields is expected to be minimal at this stage, although a full assessment of damage and production loss will only be possible once spring arrives.

Despite recent temperatures being colder than average, the situation in Ukraine is more favourable. The crop was sown into good moisture in the autumn and was well established going into the winter dormancy period. Most northern and central regions have good snow cover, leaving the crop well insulated against any further cold snaps. But in the south, some key producing districts are susceptible due to lack of snow cover.

Of much greater concern to Black Sea winter-crop production, according to leading agricultural consultancy SovEcon, is the development and persistence of an ice crust in fields across several regions. If the ice crust lasts for two weeks or more, the risk of winterkill increases substantially as the plant’s photosynthesis process is disrupted. However, the weather forecast for the next few weeks has a warmer bias, which should alleviate any immediate risk.

US winter-wheat area high

Total US winter-wheat plantings set a three-year high in the autumn, rising 5pc compared to the autumn of 2019. The total harvested area is expected to grow by around 3pc, assuming average abandonment and a minor decline in area sown to spring wheat.

Bitterly cold temperatures in February increased the risks of frost damage across the southern US Plains, but a good uniform snow cover provided good protection in many areas. The harsh winter storms have been followed by warmer temperatures across the Northern, Central and Southern Plains. The warmth has extended across most of the regions that ran more than 10 degrees below normal for much of February.

There were only minor changes to the US winter-wheat conditions reported last week compared to the January numbers. In Kansas, the largest production state, the good-to-excellent rating was down 3pc to 40pc. This compares to 45pc in the same week last year.

Texas probably suffered the worst in last month’s freeze, as the crop was already pushing a head in many districts. The USDA rated the crop at 30pc good to excellent, down one percentage point on the January number.

The crop rating in Oklahoma improved from 34pc to 38pc across the month. And in Colorado, the proportion of the crop in the good-to-excellent category rose 5pc to 52pc, dramatically better than last season’s late February rating of just 28pc good to excellent.

Although current moisture levels are satisfactory in most districts, save for parts of the Great Plains, the early La Niña influence is a concern. The latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecast suggests a 60pc chance of La Niña continuing into the spring and weakening thereafter.

There is always talk of production losses at this time of the year. The markets tend to be extremely volatile as the trade and consumers react to every snippet of information in isolation rather than the bigger picture. The reality is that most production estimates factor in a degree of yield loss from frost and winterkill, and that will vary by region according to historical performance. Keeping it all in perspective seems to be the trickiest part of the equation.


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