Challenging start for spring wheat in nation's top producing state

Planting delays could decrease the acreage for spring wheat in North Dakota, which grows about half the nation's spring wheat.

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Spring wheat. Mikkel Pates / Agweek file photo

Spring wheat's 150-year-old role in North Dakota agriculture is always strong, generally successful, occasionally glorious and sometimes frustrating. Though the final outcome won't be known until harvest, the state's fledgling 2020 wheat crop already has raised major questions, especially about planting delays and the number of acres slated for wheat that won't be planted because of uncooperative weather.

"There are challenges. We do know some acres intended for wheat won't be planted," though the number is difficult to estimate, said James Peterson, policy and marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission. His position gives him a good overview of wheat in the state.

Spring wheat is an important crop in Montana, South Dakota and northwest Minnesota, too, but its role is most pronounced in North Dakota, where climate and agronomic considerations favor it. Farmers in the state were expected to plant 6.1 million acres this spring, nearly half the national total of 12.6 million acres, according to the widely watched March 31 Prospective Plantings report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistic Service, or NASS.

There's even more focus on North Dakota spring wheat this spring because miserable weather in fall 2019 has contributed to major planting delays in some parts of the state. In contrast, spring wheat planting went well in South Dakota, with the planting pace close to average overall in Montana and Minnesota.

Only 85% of North Dakota spring wheat was planted on June 1, according to information from NASS. To put that in perspective, planting of spring wheat in North Dakota typically begins in mid-April, is most active in late April and May and wraps up in early June. Though the crop still could be planted later in June, especially in the northern half of the state, the strong possibility of major yield losses makes doing so unattractive. Wheat, a cool-season grass, fares best when it matures and is harvested before late-summer heat or early-fall frost.


Temperatures in the 80s and spikes into the 90s were seen in early June, which potentially could influence whether some farmers plant more wheat. Peterson said he didn't think the effect would be significant.

The question now is how many acres once slated for wheat won't be planted, with farmers electing to collect prevented planting payments through federal crop insurance or to switch to another crop.

Peterson said it's too early to gauge how many acres slated for wheat will go unplanted. Many in the grain industry thought at the time that the NASS estimate of 6.1 million acres in the state was too low, a view that Peterson shared. Now, the can't-be-planted-because-of-uncooperative-weather acres slated for wheat will cut into the ultimate total, which still may be higher than 6.1 million, though lower than it would have been if planting conditions had been better, he said.

Wheat, like crops in general, is fetching low prices that make generating a profit difficult, if not impossible, without high yields.. That further clouds the immediate outlook for wheat in the state, Peterson said.

Even so, wheat has a long history in the state and many farmers remain committed to raising it.

"We can't deny there are challenges. But things are cyclical; wheat will rebound," Peterson said.

Two encouraging signs: Domestic use of spring wheat has risen, while U.S. spring wheat exports are greater than USDA anticipated, he said.

North Dakota spring wheat is used to make bread, hard rolls, bagels, pizza crust, among other things, and to blend with lower-protein wheat.

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