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North Dakota Soggy Wheat Fields Seen Dimming Prospects for Spring Harvest

Wheat production in North Dakota, the biggest U.S. grower, may lag behind government estimates after unrelenting rains delayed planting and made fields more vulnerable to damage from hot summer weather.

Spring wheat, used to make bread and pizza crust, is maturing at the slowest pace in the state since 1995, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. The agency, which already expects the crop to plunge 16 percent, said it may revise the forecast after another survey of farmers affected by record floods and rain. Analysts and industry officials begin a three- day tour of fields tomorrow.

Keith Deutsch, who farms 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of crops including spring wheat and durum in Plaza, North Dakota, said he stopped planting on June 10, about 10 days later than usual, because fields were too muddy. About 30 percent of his land went unseeded because crops planted after that date would be in danger of damage from heat and pre-harvest frost.

“I’m disappointed, honestly,” said Deutsch, who still farms some of the same ground his grandfather claimed in 1902. “Some of the later-planted stuff I’ve noticed didn’t come up too good, because it was too wet when we seeded, and then more rain came in on top of that.”

Participants in the annual Wheat Quality Council tour, meeting today in Fargo, North Dakota, will take field samples from farms across the state to gauge the size of the harvest.

Durum Outlook

The USDA estimates that North Dakota may produce 233.7 million bushels of spring wheat this year, less than the 277.2 million harvested in 2010, according to a July 12 report. The durum crop, the largest in the U.S., may plunge 56 percent from last year to 29.1 million bushels, the agency said. Durum is used to make pasta.

Production might be even lower. The USDA is collecting updated acreage information this month from farmers in four states, including North Dakota. Many farmers hadn’t finished seeding when the agency conducted surveys for its previous report, which was released June 30 and indicated 6.35 million spring-wheat acres were sown in North Dakota.

The USDA’s planting forecast for the state may be as much as 1 million acres too high, said John Ulrickson, a broker and crop consultant at The Money Farm, a grain-market adviser based in Casselton, North Dakota. Recent high temperatures and humidity also may leave crops more susceptible to disease, threatening to reduce yields further, he said.

‘Disappointing Crop’

“Overall, it’s going to be a disappointing wheat crop in North Dakota,” Ulrickson said in an interview. “Where it’s too wet, the crops have turned yellow from standing in water, and you’ve got some suffering from scab and wheat streak mosaic. The weather can’t change enough to make it a good crop.”

Prospects for lower production may push wheat to $9 a bushel on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, which trades the spring variety grown in North Dakota, Ulrickson said. Futures for September delivery closed at $8.385 a bushel on July 22, up 1.8 percent for the week. The commodity has climbed 31 percent in the past year, reaching $10.78 on May 26, the highest since April 2008.

As of July 17, 47 percent of North Dakota’s spring wheat entered the heading stage, meaning the head of the grain pushes through the top of the stem, according to the USDA. That marked the slowest pace of maturity in 16 years, and compared with 88 percent at the same time last year.

‘Never Seen Before’

“We’re going to see a lot of stuff that people have never seen before” on the tour, Ben Handcock, the executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council, said by telephone from Pierre, South Dakota. “As we go north, the wheat will get younger and younger. There’s probably no headed wheat in the northern third of the state, or very little.”

The tour will travel west from Fargo to Mandan, North Dakota, tomorrow, before heading northeast to Devils Lake on July 27. Last year, the tour forecast North Dakota production at 281.7 million bushels, or 1.6 percent above the USDA’s final 2010 estimate.

Western parts of North Dakota got as much as three times the normal amount of rainfall in the past 90 days, according to the National Weather Service. Flooding on the Souris River in June set a record in Minot, the state’s fourth-largest city, spurring evacuations and inundating fields in northwestern areas, the North Dakota State Climate Office said.

Crop Conditions

About 73 percent of U.S. spring-wheat crops were rated good or excellent as of July 17, according to the USDA. Conditions were unchanged from the previous week, and below a year earlier, when 82 percent of crops got the top rankings.

“We’re feeling a little more comfortable about the crop than we were a month ago,” because government ratings haven’t deteriorated, Jim Peterson, the marketing director of the Mandan-based North Dakota Wheat Commission, said by telephone. “But it’s certain, with the late planting and variable maturities, that there’s going to be susceptibility issues right up through harvest.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Whitney McFerron in Chicago at wmcferron1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steve Stroth at sstroth@bloomberg.net

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