Winter wheat harvest
The 2017 winter wheat harvest is nearing its end.

KANSAS CITY — The 2017 winter wheat harvest is nearing its end. Most of the wheat left to be combined was in the northern Plains, in the case of the hard red winter wheat, and in Michigan, in the case of soft red winter wheat. The spring wheat harvest was under way in South Dakota and was expected to expand soon into the rest of the Upper Midwest.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated the hard red winter wheat harvest was completed in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas by July 23 and 93% completed in Nebraska, 90% in Colorado, 72% in South Dakota (46% as the recent five-year average for the date) and 39% in Montana (14%). Drought gripped South Dakota, and acreage abandonment was expected to be high in that state with some wheat already baled for hay.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in its annual Acreage report issued at the end of June forecast the South Dakota winter wheat area abandonment rate at 32% based on plantings of 950,000 acres and a harvested area forecast at 650,000 acres. In 2016, the South Dakota winter wheat abandonment rate was 7% based on a planted area of 1,180,000 acres and a harvested area of 1,100,000 acres.

In its July Production report, the U.S.D.A. forecast hard red winter wheat production this year at 757,521,000 bus, down 30% from 1,081,690,000 bus in 2016. The 2017 crop as currently forecast would be the smallest since 739 million bus in 2014. The 2016 crop was the largest since 1998. The recent five-year average hard red winter wheat outturn was 879 million bus.

Grain merchants and millers emphasized there will be no bushel shortage for hard red winter wheat in 2017-18, rather, as was the case last year, there will be a shortage of protein in the bushels available to the market.

From the beginning of the harvest in southern Texas, protein levels of 2017 hard red winter wheat have been reported low. As combines worked their way northward into Oklahoma and Kansas, the market eagerly awaited word of rising protein levels, but that wasn’t to be. Yields fell short of last year’s records across most growing areas, but protein hovered near last year’s depressed averages.

The Nebraska harvest also turned out mostly low-protein wheat even as test weights were good. Joe Christopher of Crossroads Commodities, Sidney, Neb., indicated test weight of wheat in his area was good, around 60 lbs to 61 lbs per bu, but protein was low, even if not as low as last year. He indicated 60% of the wheat brought in to local elevators in his territory had protein under 10%. Last year, 70% of the wheat brought in had protein under 10%. Wheat harvested to the east of Sidney had higher protein, but much of this wheat was damaged from wheat streak mosaic and had low test weight.

Because excessively dry conditions stress wheat, which often results in higher protein levels, there were hopes South Dakota wheat may have stronger protein, but the South Dakota crop will be much smaller this year than in 2016.

U.S. Wheat Associates in its July 21 harvest report indicated, on the basis of 354 of 530 expected samples, 2017 hard red winter wheat was averaging 11.2% in protein, equal to the 2016 crop average. In contrast, the 2015 crop average protein was 12.3%, and the 2014 crop average was 13.3%. Test weights in the 2017 crop were averaging 60.1 lbs per bu compared with 60.7 lbs in 2016. The average grade was No. 1 hard red winter, the same as in 2016.

The U.S.D.A./Agricultural Marketing Service Hard Winter Wheat Quality Lab, Manhattan, Kas., and Prairie Grains, Inc., collected and analyzed the samples reported by U.S. Wheat Associates. The samples were drawn from grain elevators when at least 30% of the local harvest was completed in each of the hard winter wheat states.

While valuing the data provided through this annual survey, some millers and grain merchants voiced concern that the methods employed by the U.S.D.A. and Prairie Grains in determining the crop’s average protein, depending on elevator samples, may overstate the actual protein average of the crop in certain years. They said many producers last year and this year retained their lowest-protein supply on the farm. This wheat was not represented in the samples taken by U.S.D.A./Prairie Grains. As a result, the 2016 crop average protein likely was lower than that reported in the harvest summary for that year, and this year’s protein average likely will be lower than what will be reported for this year, they said. In 2016-17, much of the very low-protein supply was used as feed with some train loads of such wheat even exported as feed from the Great Plains to Mexico.

One miller said the industry’s concern was the quality of wheat “functionally available” to the market. For instance, pockets of middle-protein and even high-protein wheat were uncovered during the western Kansas harvest. But much of this wheat came from areas that also saw widespread incidence of wheat streak mosaic virus (W.S.M.V.), which exacted a toll on quality. The affected wheat had very low test weight, so low that the wheat didn’t rise to the grade of No. 1 hard red winter or in many instances even to No. 2. To grade No. 2 hard red winter, the wheat would have to have a test weight of at least 58 lbs per bu, and much of the W.M.S.V.-damaged wheat had test weight in the low to mid-50s. The protein in the wheat was welcome. The question confronting millers and bakers was how to employ the wheat for its protein given its otherwise subpar quality.

Given these circumstances, millers and bakers have been discussing use of flour blended from hard red winter wheat and hard red spring wheat to achieve the protein content required for certain baked products. Those bakers already employing blends may find it necessary to buy flour with a higher percentage of spring wheat flour in the mix. Some bakers who prefer to use flour milled solely from hard red winter wheat may have to shift to using a flour blend this crop year to achieve the protein their products require.

In instances, these discussions were extensions of those that took place last year, when, because of the low average protein of the 2016 hard red winter wheat crop, many bakers adjusted to using flour with the lowest possible protein required to produce baked products meeting their specifications.

The soft red winter wheat harvest also was nearly completed by July 23. Combining across the South and Delta states was concluded a few weeks ago. The U.S.D.A. indicated the harvest also was completed in Missouri and Illinois, 96% completed in Indiana, 96% in Ohio and 70% in Michigan (64% as the average progress for the date).

The quality of soft red winter wheat harvested in the Delta states and South was far from stellar, but, as expected, quality improved as combining expanded in the key Central states.

U.S. Wheat Associates in its July 21 harvest report indicated all 270 of the expected samples from the crop had been collected. While analysis of samples from eastern Illinois and Indiana weren’t yet completed, based on data available to date, 2017 soft red winter wheat averaged 58.8 lbs in test weight (58.6 lbs in 2016), 320 seconds in falling number (330 seconds), 34.2 grams in thousand kernel weight (32.3 grams) and 9.5% in protein (9.4%). The average grade of the 2017 crop was No. 2 soft red winter, the same as in 2016. To grade No. 1, the average test weight would have had to be 60 lbs per bu or higher.

Ohio millers and elevator operators indicated the state’s crop was very good, similar to that harvested in 2016, with high test weight and good milling and baking characteristics. The incidence of vomitoxin, which in all too many years has been the bane of many a soft wheat producer’s crop, was exceptionally low this year.

The U.S.D.A. in its July Crop Production report forecast the 2017 soft red winter wheat crop at 305,637,000 bus, down 11% from 345,230,000 bus in 2016.  As forecast, the 2017 crop would be the smallest since 2010 and would compare with the recent five-year average outturn of 428 million bus.

The 2017 spring wheat harvest was under way. The U.S.D.A. indicated the South Dakota harvest was 28% completed by July 23 compared with 17% a year earlier and 17% as the recent five-year average for the date. Combining was expected to expand into the other spring wheat states of the Upper Midwest in the next several days.