* Concern as deep frosts hit EU grains with no protective snow
* But no actual damage reported in France, Germany
* Britain, Italy without problems
* Worry about Poland and east EU crops
By Michael Hogan
HAMBURG, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Bitterly cold weather currently engulfing much of Europe is raising concerns over damage to European Union grain plantings but crops could still come through the cold snap unscathed, analysts said.
No actual damage has yet been reported in top producers France, Germany and Britain but if the cold snap continues there will be increased worry next year’s harvest will suffer.
Grains can survive frosts as deep as minus 20 degrees centigrade if they have protective snow to insulate them. But unusually warm winter weather up to the start of this week means snow is scarce in west Europe’s grain belts.
EU benchmark wheat prices in Paris jumped to a seven-month high on Wednesday on concerns frosts may harm crops but later fell back as traders questioned the extent of actual damage.
In the EU’s top wheat producer France, the impact of the cold weather and deep frosts is hard to judge as the mild start to the winter, rain and the absence of frost means plants have grown faster than usual.
Soft wheat is about 2 to 3 weeks in advance of normal growth for the start of February and it is hard to say if plants are more vulnerable to frosts in their current advanced growth phase, observers said.
France has suffered frosts between minus 8 and 10 degrees since Tuesday but cold winds have increased the impact in some major grain belts. The unusually advanced growth phase of French grains means damage could be suffered even if temperatures do not fall as low as minus 20 degrees Celcius.
“We cannot say what will be the impact of the cold spell (on soft wheat) because it is a situation that we have never seen,” said Jean-Charles Deswarte of French crop institute Arvalis.
Concern mainly focuses on French durum wheat crops, less-resistant to cold weather than soft wheat and also with advanced growth which makes it vulnerable to deep frosts, Deswarte said.
France is a key producer of durum, used to make pasta and semolina.
In France’s Beauce grain belt and the western coast, two of the country’s three largest durum producing regions, grains have little or no snow cover, analysts said.
But French rapeseed seemed to be coping well with the cold. “We are not particularly worried at this stage,” said Fabien Lagarde, from the oilseed technical institute Cetiom.
Some French forecasters predict slightly warmer weather on Sunday with the arrival of some snow, but temperatures are still expected to stay below zero in most of France next week.
Germany, the EU’s second largest wheat producer, has suffered regular frosts of up to minus 15 Celsius in grain belts with isolated temperatures as low as minus 20 Celsius. Snow cover is thin or even absent in much of the country.
“Currently there is concern about the possibility of frost damage to wheat and rapeseed but I do not think significant damage has been suffered yet,” one German grains analyst said. “Modern wheat strains sown in Germany can withstand temperatures of up to minus 20 Celsius without snow cover for short periods.”
“If the cold snap goes on we will be worried. Frosts of around minus 14 Celsius are forecast up to Monday so little improvement is in sight, we will just have to wait and see how the weather turns out.”
In the EU’s third largest wheat producer Britain, grain and oilseed crops are unlikely to be damaged by the current cold snap.
“It is not abnormally cold, nowhere near the temperatures we had last winter and that didn’t appear to do much damage so I don’t think anyone is concerned about what is happening at the moment,” said analyst Jack Watts of Britain’s Home-Grown Cereals Authority.
“Probably the beginning of the winter was too mild for the crops and they will have been getting a build up of disease. If anything the cold weather may well have been beneficial to the crops to help harden them up a bit and manage the disease,” he added.
A temperature drop in Italy, a major grain importer, has so far not damaged wheat plantings, farmers and grain traders said. Snow in northern and central regions has eased concerns about possible dryness in spring, they said.
In import-hungry Spain, farmers said recent warm, dry weather was more of a problem for crop development than the current cold snap, but any forecasts before the make-or-break months of April and May would be premature.
Attention is starting to move to east EU countries where damage risks appear higher.
Snow cover is believed to be thin in Poland, Romania and Baltic States so grain plants may be facing low temperatures without protection, said Laurine Simon of French analysts Strategie Grains.
“It’s clear there will be damage for winter crops,” Simon said, adding that winds lifting thin snow could amplify risk. (Reporting by Michael Hogan in Hamburg, Valerie Parent in Paris, Nigel Hunt in London, Svetlana Kovalyova in Miland and Martin Roberts in Madrid; editing by Keiron Henderson)