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Published February 20, 2012, 10:46 AM

Upper Midwest winter wheat lacks snow but still OK

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — When winter wheat farmers in the Upper Midwest look around their land, they see a lot of brown and barely any white. Given the time of year and the investment buried beneath the soil, it's a distressing sight.

By: BLAKE NICHOLSON, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — When winter wheat farmers in the Upper Midwest look around their land, they see a lot of brown and barely any white. Given the time of year and the investment buried beneath the soil, it's a distressing sight.

"There isn't any snow from here to the Canada border, really," said Scott Biskeborn, who farms near the southeast South Dakota city of Chamberlain. "There's certainly a fair amount of concern."

Winter wheat is planted in the fall and begins to grow before turning dormant when winter cold arrives. Snow covering the ground helps insulate the young plants that reawaken with warmer weather in the spring and grow to maturity. But this winter, there is little snow to speak of in the parts of the Dakotas, Montana and Minnesota where the crop is grown.

In the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, released at the end of January, snow cover for the winter wheat crop was rated as 80 percent poor in North Dakota, 87 percent poor in South Dakota and 87 percent poor or very poor in Montana. No such estimates were made for Minnesota, which has a negligible 50,000 acres of seeded winter wheat.

With the jet stream staying above the Canadian border, winter storms that typically dump heavy amounts of snow in the region have stayed to the north, along with frigid temperatures. That has resulted in a relatively mild winter so far in the Upper Midwest, as evidenced by the average snow depth in North Dakota of less than 2 inches. Typically, the average would be more than 2 feet, according to USDA.

"Lack of ground cover is not a good thing for a winter wheat crop," said Ryan Schuchhardt, sales manager for the South Dakota Wheat Growers. "My gut tells me we're in trouble."

That might not be the case — at least not yet, thanks largely to unseasonably balmy temperatures so far this winter, according to Joel Ransom, a cereal crops agronomist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

The most recent crop sampling in North Dakota earlier this month didn't turn up a lot of crop damage, "but we've got a bit of winter ahead of us," Ransom said. "We had that really cold week a couple of weeks ago and that was worrying ... Those types of events as they come later in the spring are potentially more damaging.

"I don't think we're in that danger zone now," Ransom said.

USDA estimates back that up, with the condition of the winter wheat crop in the region rated mostly in the "fair" and "good" categories. In Montana, which has the most winter wheat acreage of the four states, farmers don't seem overly concerned.

"It's not unusual for us here to have an open winter," said Ryan McCormick, who farms near Kremlin in the north central part of the state, where warm Chinook winds off the Rocky Mountains can melt snow quickly. "More concerning in our area is a lack of moisture since the end of June."

Even if there is widespread damage to the region's winter wheat crop, it isn't likely to impact grain markets or the price of wheat-based foods in grocery stores. Upper Midwest states this season account for only about 10 percent of U.S. winter wheat acres. Most of the nation's winter wheat is grown in more southern states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, where drought has been easing.

There also are plentiful stocks of wheat in the country, though possible winterkill in the European crop could cut into those supplies, said Darin Newsom, a senior analyst at the Omaha, Neb.-based market information company DTN.

For now, farmers can do little more than wait for the crop to begin growing again.

"Mid-March is when it starts to green up, and we'll see what it starts to look like then," Biskeborn said as he enjoyed a near 50-degree February day. "If there's any question about the condition of their wheat, (farmers) are going to tear it out and plant corn."

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