Over 25 percent of U.S. winter wheat may be abandoned

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U.S. winter wheat farmers could abandon more than a quarter of the new wheat crop due to devastating weather, though decisions on abandonment will not be made until spring, experts said this week.

Historic drought, coupled with record warm weather and high winds sweeping across the Plains, have left the new crop in the worst conditions in decades. With no significant improvement soon, many farmers could give up on their wheat acres.

Abandonment levels could exceed 25 percent, said Mark Hodges, a wheat industry consultant and executive director of Plains Grains Inc, which represents producers from around the Plains. "The potential is there," he said.

"We are nowhere near a normal crop. But Mother Nature is very fickle," Hodges said. "Should we get some moisture, and I'm not saying the likelihood is high ... we could still produce some wheat. But the likelihood of significant moisture is not great before spring."

According to data compiled by U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist Brad Rippey, since the 1950s there have been only two years in which U.S. winter wheat abandonment reached or exceeded a quarter of the crop. In the 1988-89 season abandonment was 25 percent, and in 2001/02 it was 29 percent.

Current U.S. winter wheat conditions are worse than those observed then at this point in the season, and the lowest on record for this time of year. Twenty-six percent of the new U.S. winter wheat crop was rated poor to very poor in late November by the USDA.

The 1988-89 crop was planted during the drought of 1988 and further harmed by a severe cold wave in February 1989. The 2001-02 crop was adversely affected by a La Niña-driven drought, according to Rippey.

This year's drought has been made worse by record warm temperatures.

The year to date marks the warmest first 11 months of any year on record for the contiguous United States, and for the entire year, 2012 will most likely surpass the current record as the warmest year for the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Drought has blanketed much of the central and High Plains states, critical wheat-growing areas. Indeed, roughly 65 percent of the wheat area is suffering from drought.

In Nebraska, 100 percent of the farm state is rated in severe or worse drought, and 77.46 percent is considered in "exceptional" drought - the worst level, by state and federal climatology experts who issue a weekly "Drought Monitor".

The lack of precipitation, combined with the warm weather and high winds, is hard to overcome for wheat farmers.

Some wheat has failed to come up at all, said Bob Klein, a University of Nebraska crop specialist. "It hasn't germinated because it hasn't had any moisture. We've also had some high winds that took out some wheat."

Klein said farmers will wait until spring to evaluate conditions and soil moisture levels before deciding whether to give up on their wheat. Some may try to plant other crops.

"They'll wait till the last minute to see what they do," he said. (Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Dale Hudson)

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