Early Season Optimism for Winter Wheat

Winter Wheat Crop Off to More Promising Start in 2024

Jason Jenkins
By  Jason Jenkins , DTN Crops Editor
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A small percentage of heading in winter wheat was reported in Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina in USDA's latest crop progress report. (DTN file photo)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (DTN) -- After enduring consecutive years of drought across large swaths of the nation's winter wheat growing regions, this year's crop is off to its best start in four years.

According to USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Crop Progress report for the week ended April 7 -- the second report of the new growing season -- an estimated 6% of winter wheat had already headed, 1% behind the last year but also 1% ahead of the five-year average. Most heading occurred in Texas and California, though some heading was noted in the lower reaches of the Midwest in states such as Illinois and Missouri, according to the report.

Overall, crop condition was reported to be greatly improved from the same time in 2023. Across 18 states included in the NASS report, 56% of winter wheat was rated as good to excellent condition compared to only 27% for the same week last year. This is the best condition reported for the overall crop since 2020 when 62% of winter wheat was rated as good to excellent in the second NASS report issued that season.

The latest NASS report rated 32% of winter wheat as fair and 12% as poor or very poor compared to 36% fair and 37% poor or very poor last year.

Perhaps the state where the turnaround is most pronounced is Kansas -- 49% of the crop is rated as good to excellent compared to only 16% a year ago. Only 14% of the Kansas crop is rated poor or very poor compared to 57% in 2023.

In a report issued by Kansas Wheat, growers from around the state offered updates on their crop. In far western Kansas, producers are spraying good stands of wheat for bugs and worms, said Jason Ochs who farms near Syracuse. The area is in a pocket of the state that received adequate, but extremely variable, moisture during the winter. It was just enough to keep it out of drought status and maintain a good stand of wheat.

"The wheat drilled in absolutely beautifully, and we got a good stand right off the bat," Ochs said. "It's a nice change."

Cold temperatures at the end of March did burn the tips of wheat, but Ochs was more concerned about spraying and getting that next round of moisture than freeze damage. He said the top 2 to 4 inches are starting to look pretty dry.

"We missed the last three or four moisture chances, so optimism is going down a little bit," Ochs said. "As of now, it looks like we are going to definitely raise above-average yields. I don't know how you cannot be a little excited about that."

According to the latest report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, nearly 29% of Kansas is experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions. That includes portions of central Kansas such as where Martin Kerschen farms in Reno and Sedgwick counties. In the Kansas Wheat report, he noted that ponds are still dry and wheat is starting to show that blue tint, indicating drought stress. He is also more concerned about the impact of upcoming 80-degree days this weekend than the singed tops from the freeze late last month.

"Without moisture, it's not going to be the best of situations," Kerschen said. "But it looks a lot better right now than it did last year. That's one positive."

At this time in 2023, more than 56% of Kansas was experiencing extreme to exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Such conditions do not presently exist anywhere in the state.

Mike McClellan, who farms near Plainville in north-central Kansas, said he feels like he's always waiting for moisture. He planted his wheat late, waiting for rain. Some did not come up until the first part of March. The late emergence prevented freeze damage as the crop was not in a vulnerable growth stage.

"Most of the wheat in our area is really small and has taken off now, so that helped us get through the freeze OK," McClellan said in the Kansas Wheat report. "Now, we're starting to get some growth, and all of a sudden we're starting to worry about moisture again."

With four days of 40-mph winds, McClellan said the next rainfall event is critical. However, he pointed out that he did not cut any of his winter wheat last year, so this year still has him feeling better about this crop's chances.

Chris Tanner farms around Norton, Kansas, near the Nebraska border. He said he had nice fall moisture to drill in his wheat. Then, he had a couple of torrential downpours and a few snows that maintained good moisture.

"Our (soil) profiles are a lot better than we've had in the last three years," he said. "It feels better coming out of a drought rather than going into it. We've done our time."

Tanner noted the wheat in his area was not far enough along to suffer from cold temperatures, but a few spotty fields are showing a little stress. At this point, however, he is feeling optimistic.

"We're a lot better off than we have been in the last several years," he said. "Right now, it's one of the better-looking crops that I've seen in the last 10 years."

DTN Lead Analyst Todd Hultman said he's also cautiously optimistic the winter wheat crop will have favorable weather conditions, based on DTN's weather forecast which expects below-normal temperatures and above-normal precipitation for the southwestern Plains in May.

"If that verifies, it should offer good help to this year's hard red winter wheat crop, though longer-term forecasts can be tricky," he said. "The soft red winter wheat crop already has plenty of moisture and looks in good shape so far. Spot contracts for both Chicago and Kansas City wheat are near their lowest levels in three years and show no concern about production problems yet. It's one of those things we have to watch as a lot can change between now and harvest."

The latest NASS Crop Progress Report can be downloaded here: https://downloads.usda.library.cornell.edu/… .

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map can be found here: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/… .

Kansas Wheat's April crop conditions report is available here: https://kswheat.com/… .

Jason Jenkins can be reached at jason.jenkins@dtn.com

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Jason Jenkins