France's latest forecasts show how grain crops are feeling the heat

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s farm ministry on Tuesday cut sharply its estimate of this year’s soft wheat harvest while forecasting a steep fall in maize production, underlining the impact of severe weather that has damaged farmland across Europe.

FILE PHOTO: An employee of an agricultural trader displays grains of maize in Montbert, France, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe/File Photo

Heatwaves and drought have strained European crops in recent weeks, contributing to a surge in Paris wheat futures to five-year highs. [GRA/EU]

France has been less exposed than more northerly regions but as the European Union’s biggest grain producer its declining harvest prospects have fuelled market jitters about supply losses.

“Alternating periods of intense heat and violent storms in certain regions, as well as localized rainfall at harvest time, have reduced the yield potential of most crops in 2018,” the ministry said in a crop report on Tuesday.

It estimated French soft wheat production at 35.1 million tonnes, down 1 million tonnes from its July forecast and 4 percent below 36.6 million tonnes harvested in 2017.

This was still above some market estimates that have put the French crop at 33-34 million tonnes.

The ministry said the extreme weather ahead of harvesting had led to extremely varied yields in soft wheat and as a result wide differences in crop estimates.

It reduced its estimate of the average soft wheat yield to 7.11 tonne per hectare, down from 7.31 t/ha in July and below last year’s 7.37 t/ha.

In its first forecast for 2018 maize (corn) harvest, the ministry pegged production of grain maize, excluding seeds, at 12.8 million tonnes, down almost 10 percent from 14.3 million last year.

“Summer crops (maize, sunflower, soybean, sugar beet) are enduring the effects of high temperatures and low rainfall since June. In the absence of irrigation, yield potential is much lower compared with 2017,” the ministry said.

The average grain maize yield was projected at 9.03 t/ha, down from 10.1 t/ha last year, although the ministry said the outlook was also relative to very strong yields in 2017.

Fodder maize, a variety fed directly to livestock on farms, was also expected to see a drop in output, with the ministry projecting a 7 percent fall in the crop to 17.8 million tonnes.

It confirmed its previous expectations for a sharp drop in rapeseed and durum wheat production this year.

Estimated rapeseed output was left unchanged at 4.6 million tonnes, down 14 percent from 2017. Durum wheat production was revised down slightly, to 1.84 million tonnes from 1.86 million in July, putting it down more than 13 percent compared with 2017.

Estimated all-barley production was revised down to 11.8 million tonnes from 12.1 million forecast in July, now down nearly 3 percent from last year’s level.

Reporting by Valerie Parent and Gus Trompiz; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Jane Merriman