Warm and dry: A devastating combination for U.S. wheat crop

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The U.S. winter wheat crop, already facing the worst conditions in nearly three decades, is being hit with an early winter double-whammy.

Still suffering through one of the worst droughts in history, wheat farmers are also having to deal with the warmest conditions ever for early winter in the High Plains. In Kansas, the top U.S. wheat producing state, 2012 ranks as the warmest on record.

The unseasonable warmth is causing young wheat plants to try to grow at a time when they normally would be entering dormancy for the winter, a condition in which the plant essentially sleeps until spring, using little water or soil nutrients. But the unrelenting drought that withered last summer's corn and soybean crops has left the soil too dry to support growth.

The combination is a killer for young wheat plants, adding stress to a crop that is already in poor shape. The prolonged drought is weakening the young wheat plants' root systems, which are needed to help the crop survive the winter, and the warmth is encouraging insect and weed problems.

"We're not expecting much," said Alan Townsend, who has been planting wheat on his 3,000-acre farm in northwest Kansas since 1974 and has yet to see this year's crop even start to grow.

This year, Mother Nature has kept the heat on high, even into December. On Townsend's farm in Goodland, Kansas, on Monday, the temperature reached nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the normal maximum temperature of 44 degrees for that area for that date, according to state climatologist Mary Knapp.

In Kansas, which produced 382 million bushels of wheat last year out of a national total of 2.27 billion bushels, the average temperature from January through November this year was 60 degrees, nearly 7 percent warmer than the long-term average, Knapp said.

Eight of the 11 months of 2012 through November 30 were hotter than the average. November was 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.

"We are warm," said Knapp. "That makes it really difficult for the wheat to go dormant."

What happens in Kansas is closely watched by market participants because the state is so critical to total production potential. And U.S. wheat, particularly the bread-making winter wheat, is a key export.

Along with Kansas, other top production states, including Oklahoma, Texas, South Dakota and Nebraska, are also struggling.

In its final crop progress report of the year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said last week that the new winter wheat crop was rated only 33 percent good to excellent, an all-time low for late November, and the worst ratings overall since 1985 as 26 percent was rated poor to very poor.

In Kansas, fully a quarter of the new crop was rated poor to very poor, with 46 percent rated fair and 29 percent rated good to excellent, USDA said. In South Dakota, 64 percent of the crop was rated poor to very poor; 46 percent of Nebraska wheat was rated poor to very poor; 44 percent of Oklahoma wheat was rated poor to very poor; and 40 percent of the crop in Texas was rated poor to very poor.

Frontier Ag grain marketing manager Ben Brandvik said many wheat growers would like to forward contract their new wheat at futures prices of more than $9 a bushel, prices that are up more than 30 percent from just six months ago. But the conditions now are so bad that many fear they won't be able to produce a crop to sell.

"It's not dead yet. But people are scared. Normally wheat is dormant by now. There is a lot of conversation about what is the wheat doing," Brandvik said.

There may be some near-term relief. Cooler temperatures through the Plains and scattered precipitation is likely later this week, but no significant rain or snow is in sight, according to forecasters.

Wheat is a resilient crop and wheat experts say the crop could still come back if weather conditions shift soon. Futures traders have been reluctant to push wheat prices higher than the 30 percent gains this year largely because the fate of the new crop is still unwritten.

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