Though the 2012/13 harvest is just winding down, U.S. winter wheat farmers are already looking ahead to the 2013/14 crop.

In fact, the majority of next year’s winter wheat crop is already in the ground. However, there has been very little relief from drought conditions plaguing the U.S. plains, significantly hindering the pace of crop emergence.

During the harvest and planting seasons, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistic Service (NASS) releases a weekly crop progress report. As of Oct. 21, U.S. winter wheat plantings were 81 percent complete, up from 71 percent the prior week and just above the five-year average of 80 percent.

Several key winter wheat states, such as Kansas and Oklahoma, are well ahead of their respective average planting paces. Other key producing states, including Montana, South Dakota and Ohio, are well behind the average planting pace.

The planting pace is of less concern this year than the crop emergence rate. Winter wheat is planted in the fall, germinates and emerges before going dormant when cold winter temperatures set in.

Overall, 49 percent of the winter crop has emerged. That is just shy of 51 percent emerged at the same time last year and below the five-year average of 56 percent emerged.

About one third of winter wheat states are slightly ahead of the five-year average pace, but several states are considerably below average.

In South Dakota, NASS reports only 13 percent crop emergence, compared to 82 percent last year and 80 percent over the last five years. Nebraska is 33 percent below last year at 58 percent emergence and Montana’s crop is 36 percent emerged, 31 percent below the five-year average.

These three states accounted for 20 percent of total hard red winter (HRW) wheat production in 2012/13.

Ohio, which produces 14 percent of the country’s soft red winter (SRW) wheat, is 18 percent behind the five-year average with 22 percent of the crop emerged.

The largest single factor inhibiting crop emergence is severe lack of moisture. Persistent drought conditions throughout the U.S. plains, starting last year at this time, have hindered agricultural production in 2012.

Impact on this year’s wheat crop was minimal because planting was mostly complete before conditions worsened. However, continued drought conditions now threaten next year’s wheat crop.

In fact, the National Weather Service (NWS) predicts drought conditions will not only persist, but also intensify and spread between now and February. NWS expects drought conditions to develop farther west into Oregon and Washington and farther north in Montana and Idaho.

Small regions in Alabama, Georgia and California are the only areas in which NWS expects the drought impact to ease.

In South Dakota, for example, NASS reported 66 percent of topsoil and 71 percent of subsoil as very short on moisture — compared to just 5 and 6 percent considered very short last year, respectively.

Nebraska is facing a similar situation, 69 percent topsoil and 77 percent subsoil is very short of moisture, compared to 5 percent on average this time of year.  

Wheat is a very tough, durable crop and can withstand a lot of adversity. It is much too early in the season to predict how the crop will perform in 2013/14.

The current lack of moisture is something to monitor as we enter the winter months, knowing that even a little rain will go a long way toward producing another excellent U.S. wheat crop.