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El Niño Boosts Outlook for US Hard Red Winter Wheat

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Promising early season conditions and a favorable long-term forecast suggest that the newly planted US hard red winter wheat (HRW) crop could rebound after years of poor production.

The HRW crop, which accounts for nearly 40% of total US wheat output, has wilted under La Niña-fueled drought in the southern Plains for the past three years, as Gro wrote about here, driving HRW ending stocks to the lowest level in 15 years. 

But conditions are beginning to improve in 2023 amid a strengthening El Niño, which typically brings higher precipitation and more moderate temperatures to the southern Plains. Increased rainfall in the region has already delivered some much needed relief: Gro’s Drought Index readings in HRW-growing states have dramatically declined from 2022’s record high. Soil moisture levels in the area have also increased, as Gro’s Climate Risk Navigator for Agriculture shows.

The crop’s longer-term outlook also is promising. Gro’s forecast data for 2024 indicates greater precipitation and milder temperatures in the critical spring months than in past years, although forecasts that far into the future contain a high degree of uncertainty. 

View this Gro display showing forecasted precipitation and temperature anomalies through July 2024. 

HRW planted acreage, which the USDA reports in January, is expected to be flat to slightly lower versus last year, after significant declines in recent years. A double-digit, year-over-year drop in HRW futures prices may have discouraged farmers from expanding their planted area. 

Winter wheat enters its dormant stage in late November to early December and emerges in the spring, when the crop needs sufficient soil moisture to germinate properly. Harvest runs from late May and into the summer. 

Crop conditions for HRW wheat have improved from prior years, as seen in this Gro display. In Kansas, the top HRW-producing state, the percentage of the crop rated “good-to-excellent” is higher than this time last year, although it is still well below the five-year average. But in Texas and Oklahoma, the No. 2 and 3 states for HRW, crop condition ratings have far outpaced both the historical averages and last year’s readings. 

The US Climate Prediction Center is now assigning an 88% chance that El Niño weather conditions will continue at least through May 2024, which could bolster HRW wheat yields. Currently, Gro’s machine-learning Hard Red Winter Wheat Yield Forecast Model is predicting improved totals versus 2022. Previous El Niño years, including 2019 and 2016, also saw higher yields compared with La Niña years.

An uptick in HRW production would come at a time when US wheat exports are projected to be at a 52-year low as prices from competing origins continue to undercut US offerings. Reduced water levels on the Mississippi River have also hampered southbound grain shipments this season, as Gro highlighted here

Mississippi River levels have begun to slightly recover in recent weeks. Gro’s forecast data currently predicts near-normal rainfall in the southern Mississippi River basin for November and December, which could further boost river heights.

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