Gro Data Reveals New Problems for US Wheat Production

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Production of US hard red winter wheat is expected to drop in 2020 due to forecast lower yields and further declines in acreage planted to the grain.

Gro’s hard red winter (HRW) wheat model is currently predicting an average yield of 40.53 bushels per acre. That’s 8% lower than last year, and 3.5% below historical trend. The crop, which is in its dormancy stage right now, got off to a weak start. Cold and dry conditions during planting season, across large parts of western Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Colorado, put the crop at risk for winterkill before it resumes growing in spring.

The Gro yield model, which updates daily, relies on a host of land- and satellite-based data inputs. Factors currently pulling the yield forecast down are low values in root zone water availability, based on the USDA’s gSSURGO soil survey data, and evapotranspiration anomaly data from the multi-agency FEWS NET product.

Acres planted in winter wheat for 2020 fell by just over 1% to 30.8 million acres from the previous year, the seventh year in a row of declines, according to USDA NASS. That represents a dramatic shift away from planting wheat in the US, as wheat acreage has tumbled by 53%, or 34.7 million acres, since peaking some 40 years ago.

Total US acreage planted to winter wheat is down 53% from its peak in 1981. The left chart shows acreage declines for each of the top 10 winter wheat producing states. Kansas, the biggest producing state, is shown in red. The chart at right shows that operating profit per acre for winter wheat (purple line) hasn’t kept pace with other crops, including corn (blue line), soybeans (red line), and cotton (green line). 

On an operating profit per acre basis, wheat has failed to keep up with gains by other crops, especially corn and soybeans, in recent years. Increased global competition, especially due to a boom in wheat production in the Black Sea region, has made the US a less attractive origin, according to price data from the International Grains Council on the Gro platform. In addition, technology has driven an improvement in yields for both corn and soybeans at a more rapid pace than wheat. For the current year’s crop, a late soybean harvest last fall might have barred some winter wheat planting among farmers who routinely double-crop wheat and soybeans.

(Gro’s Black Sea region yield model, which combines forecasts for Ukraine and Russia, is currently forecasting an average yield of 54.77 bushels per acre, which is 4% below the 20-year trend.)

USDA NASS and FSA data in Gro show how the shift from winter wheat to other crops has played out in individual states and counties. Compared with last year, winter wheat acreage is down this year in 8 of the 10 biggest producing states, but is higher in Texas and unchanged in Kansas.

Kansas is the largest winter wheat producing state, accounting for over a quarter of all production in 2019. While winter wheat acreage has dropped 30% in the state over the past 20 years, to 6.8 million acres in the latest year, corn and soybean area has increased by 86% and 54%, respectively.

Kansas, the largest winter wheat producing state in the US, has reduced area planted to the grain (orange bars). Corn area (blue bars) has especially benefited. The 2020 column includes just winter wheat, which was planted in the fall. 

Winter wheat acreage in Sumner County, the biggest winter wheat producing county in Kansas, has dropped by 28% to 272,000 acres since 2000, tracking the trend for the state. But Sumner has seen an even faster expansion into other crops, with area planted to corn (38,000 acres) and soybeans (182,500 acres) in 2018, the latest data available, having risen nearly fivefold since 2000. In addition, cotton has established a foothold in Sumner County, with 31,000 acres planted in 2018 compared to virtually nothing in 2000.

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