The annual Prospective Plantings report is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's best guess on planted acres for the coming crop season. The report may be even more of a guess than usual this year, at least for wheat.

"We've never stared into the crystal ball like we have to this year," said Charlie Vogel, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

The report, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service's advance estimate of the crop acres that U.S. farmers will plant this spring, was released Tuesday, March 31. Though just an estimate, it can influence crop prices, which in turn influences what farmers ultimately plant.

But this year's estimate, prepared from information gathered in mid-March, may be less meaningful than usual, Vogel said.

"We've never been here before," he said, referring to the pandemic that's affecting virtually all businesses, including ones in ag.

One example: Some farmers might have trouble securing fertilizer for their crops this spring. If so, that would cause producers to plant more soybeans, which don't need fertilizer, and less of crops such as wheat that do, he said.

Extremely wet weather last fall, which hampered the 2020 harvest and could delay the start of planting this spring, also might factor into planting decisions, Vogel said.

Wheat generally fares best when planted early, so a late planting season would encourage farmers to plant less wheat and more of crops such as soybeans that can be safely planted later.

On the other hand, weather generally has been warm and dry since information for the prospective plantings report was collected. That brightens the outlook for relatively timely planting — and thus for more wheat acres, Vogel said.

Even so, even one major April snowstorm could have a huge impact on what farmers plant this spring, he said.

With so much uncertainty, "Planting decisions have never been up in the air as much as they are this year," Vogel said, basing that on conversations he's had with farmers in recent days.

U.S. farmers will plant a total of 44.7 million acres of wheat this year, down 1% from a year ago, according to the annual Prospective Plantings report issued March 31 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, an arm of USDA.

Of the overall total, spring wheat acres are pegged at 12.6 million, also down 1% t from the previous year.

Vogel said he expects both the national all-wheat and the spring wheat estimates will be close to what's ultimately planted.

But he disagreed with the NASS estimate that Minnesota farmers will plant 1.35 million acres of spring wheat this year, down 7% from a year ago. Vogel's best guess is that Minnesota spring wheat acreage will end up relatively stable this year.

North Dakota farmers will plant 6.1 million spring wheat acres this year, down about 9% from 2010, USDA estimated. Much of the state was pounded with early fall snowstorms in 2019, which hampered fall field work and could work against planting of crops such as wheat that normally go into the ground early.

In South Dakota, farmers are expected to 850,000 acres of spring wheat this year, 33% more than a year ago, when an exceptionally wet spring cut sharply into planted wheat acres.

In Montana, NASS estimated that farmers will plant 3.3 million acres of spring wheat, up from 2.9 million acres in 2019. An extremely wet fall in 2019 led to a big reduction in planted winter wheat acres, which apparently contributed to the increase in spring wheat acres.