Weather outlook trending toward normal

by Ron Sterk
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Although most would agree normal weather is a mathematical average of measurements that include both high and low extremes, and there is no normal growing season, analysts still make forecasts based on normal weather. If U.S. growers were ever to experience a normal growing season, what would it be like? Could this be the year?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) outlook calls for near normal temperatures across much of the Midwest and warmer-than-normal weather in the South and West.

“I think this summer will be a lot like last year with some hot spells,” said David Salmon, president of Weather Derivatives, a Belton, Mo.-based commodity weather service. “Not a perfect crop year, but not a disaster either.”

U.S. agriculture certainly isn’t coming off a normal 2011, or even a normal winter. Last year saw extreme drought across the Southern Plains and average temperatures this March that were the warmest on record by several degrees in many areas. The mild winter had both positive and negative effects on crops and pasture, with the latter greening well ahead of average and dampening feed demand in many areas.

Conditions are much diff-erent heading into the 2012 growing season than they were a year ago. The mild winter, with much improved moisture levels from a year ago, has had a significant impact on winter wheat, while good conditions going into spring have promoted rapid planting of sugar beets and major grain crops.

Winter wheat as of April 29 was rated 64% good to excellent, 26% fair and 10% poor to very poor, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its latest Crop Progress report, far better than 34% good to excellent, 25% fair and 41% poor to very poor at the same time last year. The greatest improvement was in the hard winter states of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. While moisture has been the principal benefit to the crop, the mild winter also has allowed hard red winter wheat to develop as much as three weeks ahead of typical for the date, with results evident in last week’s Wheat Quality Council Hard Red Winter Wheat Tour, which estimated Kansas winter wheat yield at 49.1 bus an acre, far better than 35 bus in 2011.

The mild winter/early spring also benefited row crops. Corn in the 18 major states was 53% planted as of April 29, far ahead of 27% as the most recent five-year average for the date, the U.S.D.A. said.
“For the second time in three years, U.S. corn planting surpassed the halfway mark by the end of April,” the U.S.D.A. said, adding that corn planting in 2010 was slightly ahead of this year with 2012 currently most comparable to 2004.

Sugar beet growers perhaps took the greatest advantage of the mild weather with 94% of the crop planted in the four major states as of April 29, ahead of 13% a year ago and 48% as the 2007-11 average for the date, according to the U.S.D.A. The early planting is expected to allow new crop beet sugar to be available before the end of the current marketing year (Sept. 30).

The unseasonably warm weather in some areas prompted much earlier-than-average fruit and nut tree bloom, with fruit development in Michigan about three weeks ahead of normal, according to the state’s U.S.D.A. field office. But the early growth also left trees susceptible to later (closer to normal) cold weather damage.

“Freeze damage to most fruit crops became more evident,” the Michigan U.S.D.A. field office said in its April 30 Crop Weather report. “The tart cherry crop is likely to be greatly reduced. One grower reported 80% to 90% bud kill in areas of the northwest.” About 75% of the U.S. tart cherry crop is grown in Michigan.

Michigan apple trees also were hit by cold weather, but the state’s apple crop was expected to fare better as “there is still potential for a decent-sized crop,” the field office said.

The California U.S.D.A. field office on April 17 said of the state’s almond trees, “Freeze damage was becoming apparent in areas hit hard by the March cold spell.”

While the Southern Plains is faring much better than last year, the Northern Plains — where most of the spring wheat, durum and sugar beets are grown — was experiencing dry conditions in late winter. The region was “healing up” as the season progressed, but still was lacking subsoil moisture,
Mr. Salmon said.

Possibly the area of greatest concern is the Southeast, the key growing area for peanuts, cotton and to a lesser extent corn and soybeans. After two years of quality and quantity issues with peanuts, a good crop was needed this year with producers indicating they would boost plantings by 25% from 2011.

“If the usual tropical weather system doesn’t develop and bring rain to the Southeast in the next three weeks, they’re in trouble,” Mr. Salmon said. Georgia was at the core of the dry area, he said.

While it may well be a stretch to expect a normal growing season across the United States in 2012, it appears producers, food processors and ultimately consumers at least may benefit from favorable weather in most areas compared with 2011.
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