Drought Forces Plains Farmers to Abandon Wheat Crop

By Jaclyn Krymowski for Protect The Harvest

Extreme drought conditions that plagued large swaths of the American breadbasket this growing season are forcing wheat farmers to make tough harvest decisions. This is concerning, but all is not lost. It is worth monitoring the harvest, as the most-affected states in the Southern Plains provide the majority of wheat that goes directly to domestic and export markets.

Significant expected rates of wheat abandonment and lower yield

Preliminary statistics from USDA/NASS on U.S. winter wheat predict an abandonment rate of 32.6%, the highest since 1917, when the U.S. was engaged in World War I. Both 2002 and 2022 saw similarly high rates of abandonment at 28.8% and 29.5%, respectively.

Bryce Anderson, agriculture meteorologist emeritus, puts the significance of these numbers into perspective in a recent Progressive Farmer article:

“The USDA estimate suggests that almost 1 out of every 3 acres of winter wheat seeded in the fall of 2022 will be abandoned, likely because of drought. This expected abandonment of almost one-third of seeded acreage surpasses not only the big Southern Plains drought year of 1951 but also exceeds the winter wheat abandonment rate during the Dust Bowl drought years of the 1930s.”

Just because a significant acreage is set to be “abandoned,” it should be noted this does NOT mean it is sitting fallow. Some farmers are killing off their poor performing wheat fields and, instead, are opting to plant sorghum, sometimes called milo, used as a soil-enhancing cover crop and in livestock feeds. Sorghum can also be profitably exported.

Some farmers are opting to have cattle graze their wheat fields, turning an unusable, poor-quality, grain yield into a high-quality protein product that will feed Americans with nutrient-dense protein. Nevertheless, due to late spring rain, farmers whose winter wheat yields look promising are now battling weeds that accompany the recent moisture. While the rain is needed, fields are also now wet, which could further hamper wheat harvesting.

Domestic and global food security impacts

Despite the best efforts by farmers, in the next 12 months we can expect to see some supply chain and export disruptions stemming from a 2023 U.S. wheat harvest shortfall.

Specifically, Kansas farmers are on track to produce the lowest volume of wheat since 1963, with an estimated harvest of 191.4 million bushels. Some estimates put the harvest at 178 million bushels.

Oklahoma, another grain powerhouse, is also predicted to have low yields with six counties estimated to lose 65-70% of their harvest.

One immediate effect is likely to be the impact on export markets. The U.S. currently ranks as the fifth largest wheat exporting nation. Some experts forecast the U.S. wheat harvest shortfall could impact the overall U.S. wheat inventory, which could dip to a 16-year low.

For consumers, reduced commodity yields will likely impact retail prices for all products made with wheat. Although wheat buyers will look to other markets to meet their orders, another major wheat producer and exporter – Ukraine – is experiencing some supply chain disruptions due to the conflict with Russia. Because wheat growth and harvest is constrained to seasonality, the recovery period to recoup a poor year of wheat production in the U.S. varies widely.

While the U.S. is likely to incur lower wheat export income, global production remains relatively stable. One report from Reuters stated that France has reported no major impacts to their wheat production despite their low groundwater levels. While Russian exports are constrained due to the conflict with Ukraine, their wheat production has been favorable, and has even shown an increase in some regions according to the USDA World Agricultural Production briefs.

Understanding the impact of the global commodity market, beginning at the farm level in the U.S., is important to knowing how, why, and when higher prices, or shortages, impact consumers. Drought is cyclical, and forecasts for more rain over the next months and years are encouraging. Ensuring adequate production of staple foods such as grains helps to assure A Free and Fed America.

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