As the U.S. spring wheat harvest nears the halfway point, producers from around the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains are reporting a wide range of yields, protein levels and grain quality issues. For this week's column, I talked to several farmers, elevator managers and grain merchandisers to get their observations on this year's crop.
As of Sunday, Aug. 13, USDA reported that 45% of the U.S. spring wheat crop had been harvested with South Dakota at 82%, North Dakota at 41% and Montana at 34% harvested.
The U.S. Drought Monitor released on Aug. 17 showed that 82% of North Dakota, 70% of Montana and 76% of South Dakota were still experiencing drought. In North Dakota, 44% of the state was in extreme or exceptional drought along with 25% of Montana and 6% of South Dakota.
Montana has received no relief, and the most recent NASS report showed that crop conditions continued to deteriorate due to the hot, dry weather. Soil moisture conditions showed no improvement from the previous week, with 98% of topsoil rated very short to short and 91% of subsoil rated very short to short.
North Dakota was able to recover from the drought a little thanks to rain finally making a visit to the state. NASS reported that rainfall amounts totaled 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches, with some isolated areas receiving over 3 inches. The moisture benefitted row crops and pastures, too, but the effects of earlier drought conditions were still being felt, noted NASS.
U.S. Wheat Associates reported in their Aug. 18 harvest reports that hard red spring harvest was on a pace similar to last year until widespread precipitation across the region delayed harvest progress.
"Prior to the rainfall, hot and dry conditions had accelerated maturity of the crop," U.S. Wheat Associates said in their report. "Approximately 18% of the samples have been collected and analyzed for the weekly harvest quality report. Test weight average is 60.6 lb/bu (79.7 kg/hl), which is down from last year's final average of 61.6 lb/bu (81.0 kg/hl). Average protein content is 15.4% (12% mb) compared to the 14.1% (12% mb) final average last year."
EASTERN NORTH DAKOTA, NORTHWEST MINNESOTA
An elevator manager in east-central North Dakota told me on Aug. 18 that they were 40% done in most of Traill County. But mainly west and north of there, they haven't gotten much done yet. Most farmers haven't been back in the fields since rain the weekend of Aug. 12 and likely won't get back until the weekend. "Looks dry the rest of the week but 40s at night, mid- to upper-70s daytime," he said. "We are at that time of year when they only can thrash wheat for six hours or less. Been heavy dew and gets damp early in the evening."
"Jury is still out on damage, if any, other than color will be affected," he added. "Wheat was barely ripe in the last 60% left and usually not much damage is done with the rains we got. We missed the big rains down south of Fargo and accumulated just 3/10ths or so, but with heavy dew and fog nearly every day since. Next week looks like we'll get going again. (The) farmer has elected to put it in the bin; very slow in the valley at the dump pits. Big carries posted to the Dec., but of course they put it away for that and don't normally sell it."
Of the 40% harvested, he told me that so far, there is no issue with vomitoxin, but the earlier showers took the color away to mid-60 DHV. DHV stands for "dark, hard, vitreous" kernels (also referred to as "color"). The test weight average is 62 pounds, so far, and the falling number is in the 380 to 450 range. Protein is all over the place at 12.2% to 16.8%, making an average of 14.4%. Protein scales have been getting smaller due to the high protein being harvested, especially in the drought areas. He told me his elevator was at +5 cents each fifth above 14% and minus 5 cents each fifth below 14%, but recently changed to +2 1/5, -2 1/5. Yields are better than expected so far and are averaging 50 to 80 bpa, with an average in the low 70s.
Foreign buyers especially demand dark northern spring (DNS) specifications with a 75% DHV minimum. When mature wheat is rained on, the kernel can be "bleached," causing the DHV count to drop. The falling number gives an indication of the amount of sprout damage that has occurred within a wheat sample. Generally, a falling number value of 350 seconds or longer indicates a low enzyme activity and very sound wheat quality. Sprout damage comes from rain on mature wheat standing in the field and can reduce the mixing strength of flour, cause sticky dough and affect loaf volume and shelf life. Many buyers from export markets require minimum tolerances of 300 to 350 seconds, and grain buyers generally discount wheat for falling number values below 300 seconds.
Keith Brandt, manager of Plains Grain and Agronomy, LLC, of Enderlin, North Dakota, said, "Spring wheat harvest in this area (is) about 50% done. Yields 60-65 bu/ac, great quality so far, 14.2 protein. Recent rains, which has greatly benefited the row crops, has really bleached out the wheat. Hopefully no issues with DHV or falling numbers or sprouts. Looks like good harvest weather for the next week."
Dave Blasey, who farms in eastern North Dakota, said that, "We haven't started (harvesting). Still seven to 10 days away for me. Been cool and wheat is still green and just isn't turning very fast at all. Looks very good, but had 2 to 4 inches of rain in the past week and quite a bit of lodging now, and I'm sure it will affect color and TW (test weight) at this point. "
"Quality of this year's crop is good," said Tim Dufault, who farms in Crookston, Minnesota, which is not far from Grand Forks, North Dakota. "Protein content has generally been good. The dry summer has stressed the crop to increase protein levels. Most varieties are coming in at 13.7% to 14.4% protein. Test weights are good also. Although now that the region has had some rain the past week, the wheat is getting discolored and losing some test weight. The harvest in the northern valley has been slow and spotty. August has been cool and humid. That has slowed the final dry-down of the crop. There is still some green heads and straw in fields, making for tough combining. Many farms in the northern end of the valley haven't harvested much if any wheat yet. Moisture content still too high."
"I am about two-thirds done," said Dufault. "Most of what we have harvested has been 14% to 15% moisture, around 14.1 protein and over 60 lb. test weight. The yield has been good. Mid-70-bushel-per-acre range. But not as good as the last two years. Traffic at the grain elevator has been slow. I think the pullback in price has guys binning the wheat. A month ago it looked like a lot of bushels would be sold off the combine."
HOW ARE DROUGHT AREAS DOING SO FAR?
Mark Rohrich, Maverick Ag Inc. of Ashley, North Dakota, said, "Many guys just getting a good start. We are almost finished. Haven't taken a sample to test quality, but looks good. Yielding 50% or less of last year; been in 20s to 40s bpa." Mark's brother, Alan, added, "Have been hearing yields are better than expected; 25 to 45 bushels. Hear a lot of protein in the 16% to 17% range. Most will get just enough to cover the insurance bushels. We finished harvest yesterday, but I drove to Medora and saw lots of fields still standing this week."
Jeff Kittell, merchandiser for Border Ag and Energy of Russell, North Dakota, told me, "In our trade area, early bushels have been better than they were thinking going into harvest; hearing from 40 to 60 bushels per acre. Protein has run anywhere from mid-13% to 16% and looking at an early average of mid-14% pro. Quality so far has been good. We experienced rain showers over last week, and I would think that will have some effect on the color and possibly TW. Spring wheat around Garrison I have heard is running anywhere from 8 bpa to low 30s. Big issue will be how many abandoned acres we have in major drought areas."
Alan Klain of Turtle Lake, North Dakota, said, "We are half done and, surprisingly, yields not great, but better than expected at 8 to 30 bpa. This year looked like 1988 all over again when it was 8 bpa, but better farming practices made the difference. Protein is running 16% to 17%. Some wheat and durum bleaching and now ADM in Hensler and other elevators are checking for falling numbers. Over in the Hazen/Beulah area, they got 4-plus inches of rain, which will likely cause quality problems with any standing wheat."
In northeastern Montana, where drought has yet to let up, Todd LaPlant, elevator manager at EGT, LLC, of Glasgow, Montana, said, "We're about 60% harvested on spring wheat and yields are averaging around 15 bpa. Protein has averaged around 14%, which is somewhat lower than expected with the low yield. We estimate abandonment at around 20% in the Valley County. The good news is that test weight and DHV have been exceptional at 60+ lbs., which is surprising and color is running 80-90 DHV."
An elevator manager in north-central South Dakota told me wheat harvest was finished there with yields in the low-30s on what was harvested, and proteins ran in the mid-14% to mid-15%. He told me harvest lasted 10 days. "It's the quickest and quietest harvest I've experienced in 20+ years."
FINAL QUALITY, YIELDS, PROTEIN STILL UNCERTAIN
The Wheat Quality Council tour during the week of July 24 calculated an average yield of 38.1 bushels per acre for hard red spring wheat. While this is the lowest yield in about 10 years for the tour, it was higher than expected by many producers, considering the severe drought conditions gripping nearly all of western North Dakota.
The North Dakota Wheat Commission (NDWC) agreed that "this overall yield was higher than we anticipated based on weekly crop ratings and producer reports. The final yield result sparked questions and sharp criticism, especially in social media circles." The NDWC acknowledged these concerns from producers, assessing the crop tour yield estimate and clarifying some misinformation in this article found on their website: http://ndwheat.com/…
Between now and the final day of harvest, rain or storms can still change the quality and yield picture in an instant... or not. In the words of Baseball Hall of Fame legend Yogi Berra, "It ain't over 'til it's over!"
Mary Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com
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