Mother Nature threw curveball at Upper Southeast wheat crop

Mother Nature threw curveball at Upper Southeast wheat crop

• After mid-May Mother Nature stepped in to throw growers a wicked weather curveball that didn’t destroy the big wheat crop, but certainly created challenges for wheat harvesting and for getting other crops planted.  

When the warm weather finally got to the Carolinas and Virginia in April, a drive from the Below the Lake Area of South Carolina, up to southeast Virginia left one thinking what a huge and beautiful wheat crop farmers had in the ground.

Planting numbers supported that view.

And, small grain field days across the region indicated as of mid-May the crop was in good shape.

After that Mother Nature stepped in to throw growers a wicked weather curveball that didn’t destroy the big crop, but certainly created challenges for wheat harvesting and for getting other crops planted.

The Upper Southeast will likely harvest something close to 1.5 million acres of wheat this summer. Reports from throughout the Carolinas and Virginia continue to call this an average to good crop. No doubt the 2013 wheat crop will still be one of the biggest in recent years, but it now appears likely it won’t be one of the best.

Back in October and November when one of the largest wheat crops on record was planted, the situation looked great for grain farmers in the Southeast. A good crop of wheat at $8 a bushel, followed by a good crop of soybeans at $14 a bushel looked like a sure formula for economic success.

Even as late as mid-May, when a series of field days in North Carolina showed a good to very good wheat crop, the optimism for this year’s crop remained high. And, there was a lot of wheat in the Upper Southeast.

Many growers cut cotton, corn and peanut acres, making that decision last fall, when optimism for wheat and soybeans was so high.

Quality concerns

As a result, there is good reason for concern over the quality of some of the late planted seed and of the ability to achieve high yields under such wet, cool late season growing conditions.

As growers headed into the peak of wheat harvest time, many areas of the Upper Southeast were blanketed with cooler than normal temperatures and an over-supply of what has in recent years been in short supply — rain.

If Mother Nature’s lack of cooperation wasn’t enough to dampen the enthusiasm for this year’s wheat crop, the Chicago Board of Trade more than made up for that shortcoming.

As of the second week in July, wheat prices were hovering in the $5.70-$5.90 range for most Upper Southeast elevators. With the national wheat crop expected to be down by 10-12 percent this year, those prices are predicted to rise, but for growers with little or no on-farm storage that may be too little too late.

Harvesting wheat in the Southeast in July is not a good thing for growers, but as of America’s birthday on July 4, many growers were dodging rain showers to try and get the last of their wheat out the field.

The late harvested wheat also slowed down soybean planting, with as much as 50 percent of the crop planted behind small grain in some states.

Combine one of the wettest, coolest springs on record with falling wheat prices, and for some the outlook isn’t so rosy.

The unusual spring and summer weather pushed back planting dates for all crops and the delay in wheat harvest is sure to mean too many soybeans were planted too late to reach maximum yield potential.

Weather and prices are all a part of every crop year for farmers, and it appears from the weather side of the equation that the Upper Southeast wheat crop reached harvest in fair to good shape.

In South Carolina, Clemson University Extension Area Agronomist Trish DeHond says, “Cool, wet weather delayed the crop at just about every stage, from planting all the way to harvest."

DeHond, who works in Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon and Marlboro counties in South Carolina’s Pee Dee Region, adds, "There were plenty of times it could've taken a turn this year, but it looks like the wheat crop consistently dodged the bullet."

South Carolina farmers planted 260,000 acres of winter wheat this year, placing it among the top five agricultural commodities in the state in terms of land use, according to NASS statistics.

That's an 11 percent jump from last year and a steady growth in the past few years as wheat prices generally have risen.

North Carolina situation

In North Carolina, Dan Weathington, executive director of the North Carolina Small Grain Growers Association says, this year’s wheat crop is one of the biggest he can remember — and that covers a lot of ground — he adds.

Weathington says North Carolina wheat growers planted about 960,000 acres, but some percentage of that won’t be harvested, probably more than 60,000 acres he says, because of the wet weather.

Late planting may have pushed the acreage figures higher in both Carolinas and in Virginia, making the exact number of acres planted across the region hard to determine. From the start, there were concerns about the productivity of this late-planted crop, both from weather and seed quality issues.

As of the second week in July, Weathington says as many as 150,000 acres of wheat were left to harvest. By mid-June last year, the entire North Carolina wheat crop was harvested, he adds.

Wheatyield is estimated at 59 bushels per acre, unchanged from the June 1 USDA forecast and 9 bushels lower than the record high yield of 68 bushels per acre set in 2011 in North Carolina.

Harvested acres at 930,000 and production at 54.8 million bushels are all-time record highs.

“Imagine what kind of crop we would have had, if this year’s crop had the same ideal harvest weather we had last year,” he says.


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 “I’ve been involved in production agriculture for 46 years, and I’ve never seen a year in which such a promising crop has been so negatively affected by rainfall. And, it’s not just the water, we had many fields of wheat across the state that are flat on the ground, beat down by the wind and rain,” Weathington says.

In Virginia, Extension Small Grain Specialist Wade Thomason says growers planted a little more than 300,000 acres of wheat last fall and about 270,000 acres were expected to be harvested this summer.

As of the last week in June, only 68 percent of the Virginia crop had been harvested, realistically ending the opportunity for double-cropping soybeans behind the crop.

Virginia was expected to plant about 610,000 acres of soybeans this year, but that total may be reduced because of the cool wet weather for conventional beans and later than recommended planting date for double-crop soybeans.

The wheat yield forecasts have risen some from May predictions, now calling for an average yield of about 65 bushels per acre and total production of more than 17 million bushels, up nearly 10 percent from the drought-plagued 2012 crop.

Though most growers shoot for 80-90 bushels per acre, the 65 bushel per acre Virginia yield will be good, compared to other parts of the country. Nationally, the average wheat yield per acre is expected to come in somewhere around 45 bushels per acre.

The 2012-13 wheat crop is now mostly done, though into late July a few growers were trying to harvest remaining fields. What might have been is just that — might have been. Regardless, weather is not likely to prevent many growers from planting wheat again in a couple of months.

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