WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — Wheat flour production by U.S. flour mills in 2018 totaled a record 426.871 million cwts, up 472,000 cwts, or 0.1%, from the previous high of 426.399 million in 2017, according to data issued March 1 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cheer from the new peak was diminished by a weak fourth quarter and perilously low mill operating rates.

The summary for 2018 was released one month later than originally announced by NASS, delayed by the partial government shutdown that began Dec. 22, 2018, and continued through Jan. 25.

While reaching new records, flour production growth in recent years has been anything but robust. The 2018 figure was up only 0.5% from indicated production in 2014 (pre-NASS data) of 424.95 million cwts, suggesting that a generally flat trend in U.S. flour production remains in place. Indeed, it has now been six years since the annual flour production change was greater than 1%.

To date, flour production in 17 years has topped 400 million cwts. The first was in 1997 at 404.143 million cwts. The last year’s output below that figure was in 2005 at 394.973 million cwts.

NASS beginning with July-September 2014 began (18 quarters) collecting flour milling data that for decades had been gathered and published by the Bureau of the Census of the Department of Commerce. When the Census Bureau stopped after the April-June 2011 quarter, the North American Millers’ Association commissioned Veris Consulting to gather selected milling industry data based on production of the largest milling companies. The figures were extrapolated by Milling & Baking News, a sister publication of World Grain, to estimate total U.S. flour production in a way that was comparable to Census figures. The arrangement continued into 2014, and NASS data for July-December 2014 overlapped NAMA numbers. The resulting data proved to be reasonably close to the extrapolated NAMA figures. Nevertheless, data gathered during the NAMA period are not strictly comparable to the NASS figures.

The 24-hour capacity of U.S. flour mills for the fourth quarter was estimated at a record 1,650,000 cwts, up from 1.643 million in the third quarter and from 1.62 million a year ago. It was 1.618 million for all of 2016.

Based on the NASS data, mills operated at an average of 84.6% of six-day capacity in 2018, down from 86.1% in the prior year. Flour mills operated at an average of 85.1% in 2016 and 85.6% in 2015. It was the lowest since 84.2% in 2001.

The percentages reflect 307 working days in 2018, 306 working days in 2017 (a year that began and ended on Sunday), 308 in 2016 (leap year) and 307 in 2015. It was 90.3% in 2000, the last time it exceeded 90%. The annual figures were calculated using an average quarterly operating rate published by NASS.

Based on the more conventional annual operating rate calculation using fourth-quarter capacity alone, 2018 grind was 84.3%, down from 86% in 2017. This was the lowest fourth-quarter figure in recent years (at least since 1985).

Wheat grind in 2018 totaled 918.373 million bushels, up 0.1% from 917.816 million in 2017. The high was 944.868 million bushels in 2000.

Rate of extraction in 2018 averaged 77.5%, unchanged from 2017, against 77.2% in 2016 and 76.7% in 2015.

 Millfeed production in 2018 aggregated 6,458,017 tons, a gain of 0.2% over 6,447,274 in 2017. The record was 7,374,115 in 2000.

NASS also estimated 2018 semolina output at 31.951 million cwts, up 0.5% over 31.799 million in 2017. Production fell well short of 32.93 million cwts in 2011 as interpolated by Milling & Baking News but also was smaller than 32.747 million cwts in 2010 and 32.804 million in 2007 when the Census still issued annual data. Consequently, flour production ex semolina in 2018 was estimated at a record 394.92 million cwts, up 0.1% from 394.6 million in 2017.

   Durum grind in 2018 aggregated 67.086 million bushels, up 1.1% over 66.374 million in 2017. It was 66.745 million bushels in 2016.

Rye flour production in 2018 aggregated 880,000 cwts, down slightly from 883,000 in 2017. It was 1.041 million in 2016 and 1.008 million in 2015, according to NASS. Rye grind in 2018 totaled 1.827 million bushels, against 1.801 million in 2017, 2.149 million in 2016 and 2.133 million bus in 2015.

Fourth-quarter flour output in 2018 totaled 107.718 million cwts, down 0.5% from 108.237 million in the third and down 1% from 108.834 million a year ago. Mills operated at 84.8% of capacity in the fourth quarter, down from 86.7% in the third and 88.4% a year ago. Record production in the fourth quarter was 110,332,000 cwts in 2013.

The 24-hour capacity of U.S. flour mills for the fourth quarter of 2018 was placed at a new high of 1.65 million cwts, up from 1.643 million in the third quarter and 1.62 million a year ago. It was up from 1.621 million cwts in April-June 2015, the record through 2017.

According to NASS, wheat grind by U.S. mills in October-December totaled 231.661 million bushels, down 1.5% from 235.086 million bushels in the fourth quarter of 2017. It was also down 0.5% from 232.938 million in the third quarter. The record was 247.738 million in the fourth quarter of 2000.

Extraction in the fourth quarter was 77.5%, up from 77.4% in the third quarter and 77.2% a year ago.

Millfeed production in the fourth quarter totaled 1,628,348 tons, down 0.8% from 1,641,094 a year back. It was up slightly from 1,628,236 tons in July-September. The record was 1,947,407 tons in October-December 2000.

Semolina output in the fourth quarter aggregated 8.3 million cwts, down 1.1% from 8.389 million a year ago. It was up 5.4% over 7.877 million in the third quarter. Durum grind in October-December totaled 17.538 million bushels, against 17.421 million a year ago, up 0.7%. It moved up 5.2% over 16.677 million bushels in the third quarter.

Rye production in October-December totaled 210,000 cwts, which was down 2.5% from 240,000 in October-December 2017. It was down slightly from 211,000 in the third quarter. Rye grind in the fourth quarter aggregated 436,000 bushels, against 444,000 in the third quarter and 495,000 a year ago.

Among states and state groupings NASS showed Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin in first place in flour production, with output total of 42.459 million cwts in 2018, up 4.1% from 40.801 million cwts in 2017. Its fourth-quarter 24-hour capacity was 146,452 cwts, up 4,000 from the prior year. The regional operating rate averaged 94.6% of capacity in 2018, up from 93.7% in 2017.

In second place was Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington, which produced a total of 31.736 million cwts, down 1.2% from 32.135 million in the prior year, with capacity at 133,787 cwts and grind averaging 77.3% against 79.8% in 2017.

California was the single state leader and ranked third, turning out 31,382,000 cwts, gaining 0.7% over 31,160,000 in 2017. Its daily capacity was 122,171 cwts and grind rate was 83.7% against 84.4%.

Kansas placed at fourth (fifth a year ago and sixth two years ago) in wheat flour output among states and state groupings — but for many decades the U.S. leader. Kansas production was 28.122 million cwts, against 27.371 million, capacity 117,132 cwts and grind 78.2% against 77.1%.

Advancing significantly in ranking, North Dakota was fifth producing 27.173 million cwts against 25.287 million in 2017. Capacity was 93,500 and rate of grind 94.7%.

Minnesota was sixth at 26.729 million cwts, against 27.917 million, capacity, 115,120, and rate of grind, 72.4%.

Following next was New Jersey and New York at 25.690 million cwts; Ohio, 24.089 million; Missouri, 24.001 million; Pennsylvania, 23.17 million; and Texas, 22.812 million.

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina state grouping was at 17.668 million cwts; Kentucky and Tennessee, 16.046 million; Iowa and Nebraska, 14.919 million; North Carolina, 14.491 million; Colorado and Oklahoma, 12.901 million; Maryland and Virginia, 12.429 million; and Michigan, 11.427 million. 

All other states are Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Maine and Louisiana. Their output in 2018 aggregated 19.627 million cwts, against 20.218 million in 2017. Capacity was 69,807 and grind was 91.6%, down from 94%.

NASS indicated a modest revision for the third quarter. The only change was July-September total, up 14 tons to 1,641,303.

NASS made significant changes in October-December 2018 capacity data as compared to a year ago. A similar report issued Feb. 1, 2017, made no changes.

U.S aggregate capacity in the fourth quarter totaled 1,650,331 cwts (rounded elsewhere in the report) up 30,730 from 1,619,601 a year ago. Other states were down 500 cwts.

Minnesota gained 5,100 cwts; Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, 4,000; Maryland and Virginia, 3,000; Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington, 2,247; California, 1,500; Kansas, 1,100; North Dakota, 1,000 and Michigan, 500. Missouri was down 3,385; Pennsylvania was down 2,600 and Iowa and Nebraska were down 932. Other states and groupings were unchanged.

Additional revisions may yet be anticipated in the summary to be released along with the first quarter of 2019.