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Column: U.S. winter wheat crop still in need of moisture despite recent rains

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (Reuters) - It has been a historically dry fall for the newly sown wheat crop in the Southern U.S. Plains, and risks for the spring harvest continue even after last week’s rain event since the relief was less than expected.

Field of ripe wheat ready for harvesting is seen in Corn, Oklahoma, U.S., June 12, 2019. REUTERS/Nick Oxford?

As of Nov. 1, some 43% of U.S. winter wheat was in good or excellent condition, up 2 points on the week but 2 points below analyst predictions. That is the second-lowest score for the week since records began in 1986, behind 2012, corresponding to the 2013 harvest.

Parts of top winter wheat state Kansas received much-needed rains last week, but its crop health rating declined 1 point on the week to 28% good or excellent, the second-worst for the date after 1991.

That precipitation was largely concentrated in southern Kansas and Oklahoma, and the system made a huge difference for the latter. Conditions jumped to 34% good-to-excellent in Oklahoma on Sunday from just 11% a week earlier, which was easily the worst-ever score for the week.

Fall condition scores do not correlate nearly as well with winter wheat yields as do springtime ones, but the poor start greatly reduces the chances of an excellent crop and points more to an average one, at best.

The recent five-year average condition for early November is 54% good-to-excellent and the 30-year average is 58%. The 2016 harvest featured record yields with an early November score of 49%, and that is the lowest for the date in years where above-average yields were eventually realized.

Only two harvests – 1997 and 2008 – featured above-average yields along with below-average springtime condition scores.

The lack of improvement in Kansas, which grows a quarter of the nation’s winter wheat, is concerning because of the increased chances of a dry pattern this winter based on La Nina’s presence in the Pacific Ocean. The biggest fall-to-spring recoveries in the state’s crop health occurred when winter precipitation was greater than normal.

Although atypical, strong winter precipitation in Kansas has been observed during La Nina. That was in 2011-12, and the state ended up with an average-yielding crop in 2012 despite poor early prospects.

Springtime precipitation is possibly the biggest yield-driving factor for winter wheat, but the crop is also sensitive from emergence to the start of winter dormancy. Weather models indicate more moisture chances for Kansas in about a week and another possibility mid-month, though they have lacked consistency.

Crop conditions in soft red winter (SRW) wheat producing states farther east are stable and largely close to average. SRW wheat production accounts for only 15% of total U.S. wheat production while the hard red winter (HRW) variety as is grown in Kansas makes up around 40%.

But increased profitability potential of SRW wheat versus other crops likely boosted acres for the 2021 harvest, whereas HRW competitors, particularly sorghum, might be the more attractive option for those farmers.

U.S. producers a year ago planted the smallest HRW wheat area in records back to 1986. Total winter wheat acres for the 2020 harvest were a 111-year low.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a market analyst for Reuters.

Editing by Matthew Lewis