Drought threat intensifies for U.S. Plains winter wheat crop

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Yield prospects are dimming for winter wheat in the breadbasket of the southern U.S. Plains, where the crop is emerging from dormancy and requiring moisture at a time when much of the region is gripped by drought, crop experts said.

In Kansas, the top wheat-producing state, Governor Jeff Colyer on Tuesday declared a drought emergency in 28 counties and issued drought warnings and watches for the rest of the state. The emergency declarations allow affected counties to access water from certain fishing lakes.

Nearly one-fifth of Kansas is under extreme to exceptional drought, the two most intense categories, conditions not seen in the state since 2014, according to U.S. Drought Monitor data.

Winter wheat futures traded on the Chicago Board of Trade ramped to seven-month highs above $5 a bushel this month on fears an intensifying Plains drought would threaten crops at a time when planted acres are already at a 109-year low.

“Across Kansas I would predict we are going to have a below-average wheat crop, even if we have rain from here on out, just because the potential has already been limited,” said Doug Keesling, who farms more than 1,000 acres of wheat in Chase, Kansas.

Plains producers grow hard red winter wheat, a high-protein variety that is used for bread. Tight supplies of high-protein grain prompted flour millers to pay historically high premiums for top-quality wheat over the past year.

Still, global wheat supplies remain plentiful following a record-large world harvest in 2017, a factor that has at times impeded U.S. exports.


HRW wheat is seeded in the Plains in autumn and harvested in June and July. Precipitation has been minimal in portions of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas since October, preventing some plants from establishing strong roots.

“You have so little soil moisture available to a crop that in some places didn’t even germinate, (or) it’s so poorly established that the root structure is in danger of just dying,” said David Streit, an agricultural meteorologist with the Commodity Weather Group.

“I fear there is going to be a notable loss of plant population if we don’t see a rain event,” Streit said, adding he expected no significant storms in most of the region for the next couple of weeks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday rated 53 percent of the Kansas wheat crop in poor to very poor condition, up from 50 percent the previous week. Just 12 percent of the wheat was rated good to excellent, down from 13 percent one week earlier.

In neighboring Oklahoma, 72 percent of wheat was rated poor to very poor, a slight improvement from the prior week, the USDA said.

A lag in crop maturity means wheat plants are running out of time to develop properly.

“The issue is, we are behind. And the further south you are, the more serious it is because you have less time to make up the difference,” said Mark Hodges of Plains Grains, a wheat industry group based in Oklahoma.

“If we don’t get significant moisture in those areas back to the west, and we get into the time frame when temperatures are mid to upper 80s (degrees Fahrenheit) ... we will start losing plants,” Hodges said.

Reporting by Julie Ingwersen; Editing by Chris Reese