KANSAS CITY — A little over a month before the 2023-24 US wheat marketing year begins, moisture — or the severe lack thereof — is front and center for crop watchers and stakeholders all along the wheat and flour supply chains.

Two of the three largest wheat classes grown in the United States — hard red winter and hard red spring — face moisture challenges that may limit yields and production in 2023, tightening stocks and heightening the risk of above-average flour prices into 2024.

In the US central and southern Plains, the winter wheat crop was mostly seeded last fall in drought. The Plains from the Canadian border to the southern tip of Texas were almost entirely in drought conditions the week of Nov. 14, 2022, when the US Department of Agriculture released its last national seeding scorecard. Winter wheat was 96% planted, slightly ahead of 93% as the 2017-21 average pace for the date, the Department said, and 75% of it was growing in drought.

Winter dormancy was mild and mostly uneventful, outside of a few typical dips into overnight ultra-low temperatures in areas without the benefit of a protective blanket of snow. But water woes continued to worsen, and wheat awoke from winter dormancy with more acres growing in drought and crop conditions mostly worsened, causing some growers in southwestern Kansas and the Panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma to consider scrapping their crop. 

“The crop conditions we’re in have put a lot of attention on the potential of abandonment — acres that will not be harvested,” said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer of Kansas Wheat. “Crop insurance adjusters are overwhelmed with calls and putting the decision back on the farmers of whether or not they’ll take insurance on those fields, zero it out, not take it to harvest.” 

Adjusters essentially were performing a version of what scouts on the annual Wheat Quality Council hard winter wheat tour will do May 15-18: take measurements and counts, appraise stands and estimate yield.

“It’s a bushel-per-acre estimate based on what it’s looking like now, and those numbers are coming back anywhere from zero to four,” Mr. Gilpin said. “If the number of acres ultimately harvested is significantly reduced because of abandonment, there will be production shortfalls. Farmers have said ‘even the good wheat is bad,’ that plants are so drought-stressed there aren’t good tiller counts, poor growth, doesn’t have a good crown on that plant where it’s rooted down.”

Meanwhile, the USDA’s measurement of winter wheat in drought improved week by week in early 2023, almost entirely thanks to the soft wheat growing Central states of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. Eastern Michigan hung on to its drought condition longer, but by April 11, nearly all major soft red winter wheat areas were drought-free.

Millers from Michigan to Kentucky told Food Business News market editors crops were healthy and stands were good a few weeks after coming out of dormancy as some growers applied fertilizer to fields. And winter wheat conditions were improving, the USDA said, pegging good-to-excellent winter wheat ratings as of April 16 at 72% in Missouri (73% a week earlier), 77% in Illinois (64%), 77% in Indiana (68%), 63% in Ohio (62%) and 69% in Michigan (59%).

Farther west, the April 11 Drought Monitor map was awash in burgundy, the color signifying the most intense rating of exceptional drought, with 95% of winter wheat area in drought in Kansas, 71% in Texas, 88% in Colorado, 100% in Nebraska, 25% in South Dakota and 26% in Montana.

Condition ratings bore that out, worsening everywhere save slight bumps in Montana and in Kansas, where beneficial April rain fell across its central cropping districts. Good-to-excellent ratings as of April 16 were 14% in Kansas (13% a week earlier), 13% in Oklahoma (20%), 16% in Texas (17%), 23% in Colorado (25%), 21% in Nebraska (23%), 24% in South Dakota (29%) and 31% in Montana (30%).

“Salina, McPherson, Hutchinson, Wichita, wheat surrounding those cities looks like it still has potential,” Mr. Gilpin said. 

Up north, seeding officially began by the second week of April. It remains to be seen how long that window will take to open wide as producers across a huge portion of North Dakota watch the snow melt following a late shift to warmer spring temperatures, pray it melts incrementally enough to avoid flooding, and await fields to dry enough to bring in heavy equipment. 

“There’s concern out there about spring wheat planting lagging, but it’s still awful early yet to see how that acreage situation will play out,” Mr. Gilpin said, “but the fact that hard red winter wheat is going to have a short production year will put some pressure on spring wheat production and draw more attention to spring wheat plantings, conditions and ultimate harvest this year for total US balance sheets.”