Warm, dry conditions threaten U.S. Plains winter wheat belt

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Dry and unseasonably warm weather is threatening yield prospects for winter wheat in the U.S. Plains bread basket, crop and weather experts said, as global supplies of milling wheat are tightening.

FILE PHOTO: A field of soft red winter wheat about a week away from harvest is pictured in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, June 24, 2007. REUTERS/Peter Bohan

Winter wheat has struggled in some areas, including parts of Oklahoma where scrawny plants lack robust root systems. “The plant is just not in good shape to handle adverse conditions,” said Mark Hodges of Plains Grains, a wheat industry group based in Oklahoma.

Such crops are vulnerable to further deterioration. “Dry soils and lack of snow cover will make wheat more susceptible to harsh winter weather, so that will be watched,” said Justin Gilpin, chief executive of the Kansas Wheat Commission.

Global food prices are at a 10-year high, and wheat is used in breads, pastas and other staples. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects world wheat ending stocks will the smallest in five years when the 2021-22 crop year ends.

Kansas is the top producer of hard red winter wheat, the largest U.S. wheat class, which is milled into flour for bread. Planted in September and October, the crop goes dormant over the winter and resumes growth in the spring with harvest in June and July. Wheat is a drought-tolerant crop that can bounce back from hardships, especially given timely spring rains.

Still, grain traders are monitoring a rough start for the developing U.S. crop.

“It’s an issue; there is no doubt about it. It definitely is on the watch list,” said Don Roose, president of Iowa-based U.S. Commodities.

The latest weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, prepared by a consortium of climatologists, showed 46% of Kansas as abnormally dry and 6% of the state in severe drought. Conditions were worse in other key wheat states including Colorado and Oklahoma, where 68% and 29%, respectively, were in severe drought.

Warm temperatures have accelerated evaporation of moisture from soils. Between Nov. 25 and Dec. 4, 111 maximum temperature records were broken in Kansas, according to Kansas State University meteorologists.

“It does look like the risk for winterkill to the winter wheat is probably slightly higher than normal,” said Jonathan Porter, chief meteorologist for AccuWeather. A lack of snow combined with prolonged freezing temperatures “can certainly damage the winter wheat crop in the area from Nebraska to Texas,” he said.

Forecasts show little near-term relief.

Reporting by Julie Ingwersen; additional reporting by Christopher Walljasper; Editing by Cynthia Osterman