Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- North Dakota farmers have produced their biggest overall wheat crop in 13 years, thanks to ideal growing season weather that led to record yields for both spring wheat and durum and the largest winter wheat crop in state history.

The huge crop is tempered a bit by quality problems, but overall "it was just a perfect wheat-growing year, and it showed in the numbers," said Jim Peterson, marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

The Agriculture Department said in its annual small grains report Tuesday that 2009 production of spring wheat in North Dakota -- which produces about half of the nation's crop each year -- stood at 291 million bushels, up 18 percent from last year and the highest since the 1996 crop of 314 million bushels.

Harvested acres were equal to 2008, but the average yield of 45.5 bushels per harvested acre was up 7 bushels over the year to a record high. The previous record was 42 bushels per acre in 1992.

Because of the cool growing season, much of the crop has low levels of protein, a quality important to millers and bakers. That is translating into steep discounts at the elevator for many farmers who have grain below 14 percent protein, considered the threshold between good-quality and poorer-quality grain.

"Thirteen percent locally here would be a dollar (a bushel) discount," said Larry Neubauer, a wheat farmer near Bottineau.

Production of durum wheat also was up in North Dakota -- 47 percent over the year to just under 62 million bushels. Harvested acres were down 4 percent but the average yield of 38 bushels per acre tied the record set in 1992.

As with spring wheat, North Dakota farmers annually produce about half of the nation's durum, which is used for pasta.

Neubauer said yields for some of his durum in north central North Dakota have surpassed 60 bushels per acre, and that other farmers have seen yields in the 70-bushel range.

"There are a lot of record yields being set for fields and farms," he said. "The bittersweet part of it is that actually a less-than-average crop with average prices would have equated into the same income potential."

Prices for many commodities have tanked with the global economic decline. Peterson said the numbers in Tuesday's production report likely have already been factored into the commodity markets and are not likely to have a big effect on prices.

However, he and Neubauer said a big increase in durum production nationwide -- nearly a third more than last year -- might be reflected in the pasta on grocery store shelves.

"It should only be positive for consumers," Neubauer said.

North Dakota's winter wheat production was estimated at a record 26.2 million bushels, beating last year's record crop of 22.6 million bushels. The fall-seeded crop remains minor in North Dakota but has gained in popularity because of good yields and prices and because it saves farmers time during the busy spring planting season.

Ducks Unlimited also has started programs that reward farmers for planting the crop. Since winter wheat is not seeded in the spring, it means less disturbance for nesting ducks.

Production of all three types of wheat in North Dakota this year is estimated at 379 million bushels, the highest since 1996. The average yield is a record 44.2 bushels per acre, besting the 41.1-bushel record set in 1992.

"To set these records after what we went through last spring (with flooding and weather delays) is certainly amazing," Peterson said. "A lot of historical data shows that a later-planted crop has a hard time achieving those higher yields."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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