April blizzard: Disaster for Kansas wheat…or not

by Laura Lloyd
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snow covered wheat
Wet, heavy snow, cold in western Kansas on last weekend in April spurs talk of serious damage.
 
KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, U.S. — The most recent crop progress and condition report for Kansas, U.S., reporting on the week ended April 30, said with typical understatement that “Precipitation continued to fall across the entire state, with several western counties receiving measurable snowfall. Cold temperatures, at or below freezing in many counties, raised concerns of possible damage to the wheat crop,” which was 90% jointed and 44% headed.

Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Kansas Wheat Commission, described the recent weather and its potential to damage the hard red winter wheat crop in more vivid terms. He described drifts of four to six feet in western Kansas growing areas and said the recent snow was unprecedented in its timing and was bound to be devastating to the crop.

“With that wet, heavy snow” in Southwestern Kansas, “there were stems bent over and broken and they are not going to be able to make grain,” he told Milling & Baking News, World Grain’s sister publication.

“That was a rough weekend for agriculture in Kansas,” he said, adding that the focus on the storm has overshadowed the fact that wheat farmers in the state have had to endure prices falling below $3 a bushel in the country, so low that they can’t recoup their costs of production.

Both futures market prices and the cash basis in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., soared in the aftermath of the storm, with Kansas City July wheat climbing 28.5¢, almost to the 30¢-a-bushel allowable limit for gains on a single day. Along with a raft of other strong gains across the protein scale, the cash basis for 12% protein hard red winter wheat ascended 53¢ over the July future on May 1, not necessarily tied to the weather but nonetheless adding to the boost in cash wheat values. The July future then added to gains by a couple additional cents on May 2 before giving back some of the gains later in the week. That jump in values early in the week certainly may be looked at as a silver lining to the dark clouds producers have been facing, at least for the short term.

Whether the recent snow storm and its damage of unknown dimensions to the Kansas crop represents a catastrophe for the record books or not a big deal remains to be seen, crop watchers said. One veteran wheat merchandiser said the sudden boost in prices prompted a wave of farmer selling, but noted that futures values didn’t move limit up on May 1. Producers may have seen the blizzard as a temporary selling opportunity that needed to be taken advantage of because it wasn’t likely to come their way again. In other words, they didn’t seem to regard the snowfall as their gateway to consistently higher values because initial anecdotal interpretations of the extent of the damage to the crop were probably overstated.

Wheat, they emphasized, was a hearty plant of almost weed-like tenacity. If the plants weren’t headed out, they should be able to recover. It was true the most recent Kansas crop progress report estimated 44% of the wheat in the state was headed, although not all of it was growing in areas afflicted by the onslaught of heavy snow and temperatures below freezing.

The Wheat Quality Council’s 2017 Kansas Wheat Tour and its roughly 90 participants were getting a chance to eyeball the damage and come up with some eagerly awaited information. On Day 1 of the tour and as participants drove west from Manhattan, Kansas to Colby,Kansas, comments centered on the notion that it was simply too early to fully assess the situation.

As they made their way into central Kansas, participants started to see freeze damage, a problem that has been overshadowed by the recent focus on the blizzard in the western third of the state. They also saw stripe rust.

The routes on Day 2 were from Colby to Wichita. Participants estimated yields at 46.9 bushels an acre, down from 49.3 bushels in the same area last year. They saw wheat streak mosaic virus, and one observer on the tour suggested disease was likely to negatively affect wheat in the counties they travelled through May 2 than any snow damage.

Longtime crop observers were reminded by the recent blizzard of another extreme Kansas weather event: the so-called Mothers’ Day freeze of mid-May 1981, which destroyed an estimated 180 million to 200 million bushels of hard red winter wheat in the flowering stage.

The Kansas Wheat History published by the state’s U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) field office said of the occurrence: “A freeze in the northern and western areas of the state on May 9, 10, and 11 caught the crop in the critical flowering stage and caused heavy losses.”

This year’s “unprecedented” blizzard, to quote Gilpin, occurred when the wheat was not yet in the boot stage.

While observers were keen to offer their opinions about what the April 30 snow event meant for the Kansas wheat crop, they hedged their predictions with one of the most often-cited caveats in agriculture: We may not really know the extent of the damage until harvest.
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