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Storm Seen Easing Drought for Moisture-Starved U.S. Wheat

Storm Seen Easing Drought for Moisture-Starved U.S. Wheat Crops
As much as 40 percent of crops in some southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma fields didn't emerge from the ground after planting in October and November because of the severity of the drought. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The second major snowstorm in a week for the southern Great Plains is delivering moisture to U.S. wheat crops that went dormant in November in the worst condition since at least 1985 because of a drought.

More than a foot (30 centimeters) of snow was expected to fall in parts of the region, four days after a storm brought as much as 20 inches, National Weather Service data show. The precipitation may boost crop prospects in areas where fields have deteriorated after the most-severe drought since the 1930s, said Kim Anderson, an agronomist at Oklahoma State University.

“It won’t break the drought, but this storm will be enough to get wheat that’s established up and out of the ground and set it up for the rest of the year,” Anderson said in a telephone interview from Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Many areas of the Plains face exceptional-drought conditions, which signal crop losses and water emergencies, according to the government. Winter wheat, a variety that accounts for more than 70 percent of total U.S. production, has been dormant since about November and will resume growth in March and April. The crop is mostly harvested in June. Prices surged 19 percent last year.

Since the end of December, wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade have dropped 9.3 percent. The price for May delivery was little changed at $7.0525 a bushel today after touching $6.9775, the lowest for a most-active contract since June 25.

Storm Updates

Power outages occurred in Columbia, Missouri, and three inches of snow fell in half an hour in western Illinois, reported on its website today. The 19 inches of snow that fell in Amarillo, Texas, was the snowiest day ever, beating 18.1 inches that fell on March 25, 1934, it said.

Wheat conditions in Kansas improved in February because of snow, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said yesterday. The crop was rated 23 percent good or excellent as of yesterday, up from 20 percent at the end of January.

Each foot of snow means about an inch of moisture for plants, according to Kansas State University agronomist Jim Shroyer.

The storms will improve prospects for hard-red winter wheat, grown from Kansas through Texas and used to make bread, said Bryce Anderson, a senior agricultural meteorologist at Telvent DTN in Omaha, Nebraska. Soft-red winter varieties used in cakes and cookies are planted in the eastern Midwest.

Last Storm

More rain will be needed in March and April to boost plants, Anderson said. Today’s snow may be the last major storm for the region through April as forecasts call for conditions to be drier than normal, Anderson said in a telephone interview.

“They’re going to need more spring precipitation to truly improve things because the wheat in the southern Plains went into the winter on the dry side,” Anderson said. “For the next month to two months, it still looks like they’re going to be on a below-normal tract on the moisture scene.”

The latest storm poses a risk for livestock because freezing weather and strong winds can kill young animals, said Jason Britt, the president of Central States Commodities Inc., a brokerage in Kansas City, Missouri. Cattle futures fell 0.2 percent today on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

“The cattle guys are pretty nervous because they’ve lost some calves,” Britt said in a telephone interview. “Most of the time the cattle can handle it, but they don’t do too well with a foot or two of snow.”

Blowing Dust

As much as 40 percent of crops in some southern Kansas and northern Oklahoma fields didn’t emerge from the ground after planting because of the severity of the drought. High winds that accompanied the dry weather caused blowing dust and closed roads in scenes reminiscent of the 1930s Dust Bowl era.

The prospect of water from the snowstorms has made farmers more optimistic for improved yields, Britt said.

“It’s not going to alleviate all concerns that the drought is over, but you have to wonder when you get these back-to-back storms if the weather patterns aren’t changing,” he said. It’s not a cure-all because some of the wheat isn’t coming back, but it’s definitely beneficial.”

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