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Drought In U.S. Winter Wheat Fields Worries Experts

U.S. wheat experts are growing increasingly concerned about the new winter wheat crop in parts of top producer Kansas and other Plains states, as persistently dry conditions erode production potential.

Drought conditions are plaguing the entire western third of Kansas, which routinely is the top U.S. wheat-growing state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a synthesis of indices representing a consensus of federal and academic scientists.

Eastern Colorado is also plagued by drought, including areas where the condition is severe, Drought Monitor data shows.

“I’m not going to write the crop off at this point. But it is a drier-than-normal winter and the wheat is terribly stressed due to the fact that it has poor root development,” Kansas State University agronomist Jim Shroyer said. “Time will tell.”

Forecasters on Dec. 8 said weather maps showed no relief in sight for at least the next 10 days for the Plains Hard Red Winter wheat region.

Though some parts of Kansas showed better soil moisture, just 37 per cent of the crop rated good to excellent in the most recent state crop condition report released on Nov. 29, with 38 per cent fair and 25 per cent poor to very poor.

The ratings mean the crop is shaping up as the worst at this stage of maturity since 1991, said Dalton Henry, government affairs specialist at Kansas Wheat, an industry grower group.

Subsoil moisture was rated 14 per cent very short, 29 per cent short, 56 per cent adequate and only one per cent surplus, the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service said.

Some of the wheat lacked even enough moisture to emerge this fall. If it does emerge with good rains in the spring, those plants are likely to see a 40 to 60 per cent yield loss, Shroyer said.

Plants that have emerged but only with thin stands and unstable roots are vulnerable to damage.

In a crop progress bulletin issued on Dec. 6, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said a recent cold spell had effectively ended the opportunity for the new winter wheat crop to become further established before the onslaught of winter.

Torrential rains across eastern Australia have devastated the wheat crop there, with up to 60 per cent of that country’s crop feared reduced to feed quality.

“The dryness in Kansas is on all wheat producers’ minds as wheat is entering dormancy,” Kansas Wheat CEO Justin Gilpin told the Reuters Global Ags Forum.

“What this wheat crop needs is some moisture in the soil to help the young tillers (wheat plants) and a good snow cover for protection would be nice.”

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