Warnings emerge from 2009 wheat production

by Morton Sosland
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Considering all the natural disasters around the world that have occurred in recent weeks — earthquakes and tsunamis in southern Asia and Pacific Islands, horrific drought in India and searing winds fanning fires in California, to name a few — grain-based foods has good reason to be satisfied, and even pleased, with how the 2009 wheat crop has turned out. That might seem a wrong-headed conclusion regarding a harvest that is now placed at 11 per cent less than in the prior year when plantings last fall and spring were down only 6 per cent. Yet, it was in 2007 that plantings of wheat were almost identical to this year’s 59,133,000 acres and the crop that year was nearly 200 million bushels less than harvested in 2009. This emphasizes better than any other comparison why the industry has much to be grateful for this year.

This year’s all wheat harvest, most recently placed at 2,220,156,000 bushels, is the result of 50,058,000 acres being harvested and an average yield per harvested acre of 44.4 bushels. The harvested acreage is down 10 per cent from 2008, reflecting abandonment of 9,075,000 acres, against 7,494,000 in the prior year and 9,461,000 in 2007. This year’s abandonment is one of the largest of recent seasons, but it also mainly occurred in two states, Oklahoma and Texas. Planted acreage not harvested in those states was 6,150,000 acres, or two-thirds of the national lost acreage. Severe drought in that part of the hard winter belt similarly slashed yields in those two states, to 22 bushels in Oklahoma, only half of the national average, and a trifle better in Texas, at 25 bushels. This region’s disaster was offset by yield gains in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, with the latter matching its record high of 48 bushels. The net result is hard red winter wheat production down the same 11 per cent as the national aggregate.

In the case of soft red winter wheat, this year’s outturn, down a third from 2008, reflects the impact of acreage cutbacks as well as reduced yields. In the case of soft white wheat, the outturn has produced few surprises, except for quality problems in Michigan.

It is the spring wheat states that benefited the most from the unusually wet and cool spring as well as below normal temperatures in the summer. Crop maturity behind what is normal has been positive. Thanks to an 11 per cent yield climb to a new record of 45 bushels per acre, other spring wheat outturn is up 7 per cent from 2008 even with plantings down 6 per cent. The major spring wheat producer, North Dakota, has a yield of 45.5 bushels, a record high and 3.5 above the previous mark achieved 17 years ago.

No crop benefited more from the weather this year than durum wheat. In face of a 6 per cent decrease in seedings, the 2009 durum crop soared 31 per cent to 110,077,000 bushels. This astounding performance reflects the 34 per cent climb in yield per harvested acre to a new record of 43.7 bushels, compared with 32.5 in 2008 and 34.1 in 2007.

While durum numbers reveal the extent to which production may be affected by unpredictable weather, this year’s outturn also underscores the great importance of planting decisions. As winter wheat seeding for the 2010 crop is being completed, even as soil moisture conditions are probably as favorable as has been the case in recent years, the disappointment of producers with current market prices is overriding. Any planting decrease from the 59 million acres seeded for 2009 only exacerbates the crop’s vulnerability to weather-related setbacks. What happened in durum wheat in 2009 is a rarity, if not miracle, that seldom occurs. This year’s experience ought to alert grain-based foods to the real dangers of any influence that might spur farmers to further reduce wheat plantings.

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