ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Drought and low commodity prices conspired to shrink winter wheat acres this year, but harvest is revealing a higher-quality crop than expected.
A triple punch of dry soils, April freezes, and scorching temperatures during grainfill left only the hardiest fields standing this year, said Kansas State University Wheat and Forages Production Specialist Romulo Lollato.
"It was a very, very challenging season -- especially following two good growing years," he said.
In the western parts of Kansas and Oklahoma, drought dropped yields and led to significant abandonment, wheat experts told DTN. But in more eastern and central regions of those states, where some moisture was received, wheat has earned its reputation as the hardiest of grains, said Mike Schulte, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.
"We're planning on making just half the crop we made last year and our five-year average," he said. "But what's been harvested has shown good quality -- better than what we expected. Good test weights and good protein."
A SMALL CROP GETS SMALLER
According to USDA, winter wheat production for 2018 is expected to reach just 1.2 billion bushels -- the smallest winter wheat crop since 2002. Unfavorable markets helped drive down planted acres, but weather also played a big role in the small crop this year, Lollato noted.
An unusually wet October handed Kansas producers their latest winter wheat planting seasons in more than two decades. Then the spigot switched off.
"After October, it seemed like everywhere in the state dried up until April and even mid-May in some parts," Lollato recalled. "For the vast majority of the state, drought was by far the No. 1 concern for the season. We had short plants, thin canopies and an extremely stressed crop for a large portion of state." He estimates 8% to 10% of fields were abandoned.
Likewise, in Oklahoma, a dividing line running southwest to northeast through the middle of the state told a tale of two seasons -- to the east, wheat fields, to the west, dust.
"West of that line you saw high abandonment from producers who grazed," said Schulte. "We also saw some of it laid down and swathed for hay." Many of the droughty counties were among the state's top wheat-producing ones, he added.
The Kansas crop also received some brutal April freezes that resulted in variable tiller losses ranging from zero to 40%, in some of the state's biggest wheat-producing counties in south-central Kansas, Lollato said.
With roughly half of the Kansas crop harvested, Lollato said he's heard of yields ranging from 10 bushels per acre (bpa) to 70 bpa, with the majority falling between 25 and 40 bpa. Mike Schmidt, operations and grain manager at Pride Ag Resources, which operates elevators in southwest Kansas, said yields so far have ranged from 20 to 60 bpa.
"Everybody is yielding anywhere from 10 to 20 bushels more than they expected -- although their expectations were pretty low based on the amount of moisture we were short on," he told DTN.
Schulte said USDA's estimate of 26 bpa average yield for Oklahoma is probably about right. Oklahoma's projected wheat production is just 52 million bushels -- down from 99 million last year. USDA expects Kansas to produce 270 million bushels, down from 333 million last year.
GOOD PROTEIN AND TEST WEIGHTS ... FOR NOW
Although recent rains have slowed wheat harvest, most of the growing season was dry and unusually hot in the Southern Plains, Lollato noted.
"We went from one of the coolest Aprils on record to one of warmest Mays on record -- right when the crop was going through grainfill," he said. Although this stressful grainfill period may have hurt yields, it did help to drive protein levels up, Lollato and Schulte noted.
Schmidt estimated that protein levels in the grain at his elevators are averaging in the 12-point range. Schulte put Oklahoma's average between 12.5 and 13. Most growers can fetch modest premiums for higher protein, but not quite as high as some may have hoped, given the last two low-protein production years, they both noted.
"Those premiums right now aren't existing at the same level as last year, but local basis is reacting for some producers," said Schulte. "It's still advantageous to have a high-protein crop coming off three years of low-protein crops."
Test weights have also been a pleasant surprise. Schmidt said most have run between 60 to 62 pounds, numbers echoed by Schulte and Lollato.
However, the late-June rainfalls are dropping those test weights and could produce problems ahead.
"If rains continue to fall on mature wheat waiting for harvest, we could see quality problems like sprout and lower test weight and already have seen both in the soft red winter wheat," said DTN Cash Grains Analyst Mary Kennedy.
Mills can discount or reject sprouted wheat, and lower test weights don't fare much better, she added.
"Test weight ... basically provides a rough estimate of potential flour yield, so the higher the test weight, the more value the wheat has to a miller," Kennedy explained. "It is also a measure of the overall quality and when winter wheat falls below60 pounds, the grade changes to No. 2, and if it is lower, then the grade falls to a No. 3 and so on." Discounts will occur once the No. 1 grade is breached, which can happen for factors beyond test weight, such as kernel damage, Kennedy added.
Fortunately, combines are starting to roll again in southwest Kansas, Schmidt said.
"We started back up yesterday again, but the humidity is high and the ground won't let them all go yet," he said. "But today was 105 degrees, with 25 mph winds, and if that if doesn't dry it out, I don't know what will!"
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org
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