Limited moisture raises concerns for wheat growers

Mick Tom Mick, Washington Grain Commission


Capital Press

Officials don't expect much change in Pacific Northwest wheat acreage this year and predict an average harvest -- barring any unforeseen events.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service estimates 2.3 million acres of winter wheat and 615,000 acres of spring wheat in Washington.

Tom Mick, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, said the winter wheat crop is a mixed bag. It was planted into good moisture, but then the weather turned extremely dry. Only Thanksgiving and the middle of January brought measurable precipitation.

If the moisture returns, Mick said, the crop size would likely be average. Otherwise, it is too early in the season to tell.

Stripe rust is also a concern. He said the commission is monitoring the situation closely.

Blake Rowe, Oregon Wheat CEO, said acreage in his state is down about 20,000 to 50,000 acres, for a total of 950,000 to 970,000 acres. Most of the reduction is in the Willamette Valley, where some growers are shifting back to grass seed or other crops.

The valley typically grows 150,000 acres of wheat, Rowe estimated.

Last year, statewide spring wheat acreage was expected to be about 160,000 acres, Rowe said, and there's no reason it would be substantially different this year.

Stripe rust will continue to be a problem in Oregon, he said. Surveys show it is present in some fields. There's enough inoculum to cause a problem if the region sees another wet, cool spring.

Dryness is also an issue, Rowe said.

"We are certainly concerned," he said. "I don't think there's been any real harm yet, but if we have a lot longer period where it stays dry, it is going to start to have an impact."

Blaine Jacobson, executive director of the Idaho Wheat Commission, said winter wheat plantings are down about 5 percent compared to last year, and spring acreage is expected to be down 10 to 15 percent from the 2011 crop, when NASS reported 820,000 acres of winter wheat and 640,000 acres of spring wheat.

"We've had two years in a row of 100 million bushel-plus crops; those were both 10-year highs," Jacobson said. "Some of it is just settling back. We think we'll still be above our 10-year average, but it will be off from these last two years."

Some other crops are raising the rate of contracting per acre at the expense of wheat, Jacobson said, pointing to malting barley, sugar beets, potatoes and alfalfa hay.

The Idaho commission is watching weather patterns closely.

If the dryness continues, rust will be less of an issue, Jacobson said. But the lack of moisture could affect yield.

"It's too early to tell," Jacobson said.

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