As usual, Mother Nature will take her time when it comes to revealing the extent of damage to the wheat crop from the spring blizzard that hit western Kansas at the end of April. The storm dumped as much as 21 inches of snow in some areas. Other regions received lesser amounts but were still subjected to below-freezing temperatures and high winds for extended periods, according to the Kansas Weather Data Library.
That combination is a problem for the crop in the stage of development much of the wheat was in, said Kansas State University assistant agronomy professor Romulo Lollato.
“Wheat injury due to low temperatures is more likely if it occurs repeatedly and if it is windy at night, which happened from April 29 to May 1,” said Lollato, a wheat specialist with K-State Research and Extension. “We observed below-freezing temperatures three consecutive nights and wind speeds of more than 40 miles per hour for more than six consecutive hours, especially in southwest Kansas.”
At stake is the crop in a state which typically produces the most wheat in the U.S. Nearly one-fifth of all wheat grown in the nation is grown in Kansas – with a sizable amount grown in western Kansas. Half of the state’s crop is sold within the U.S.; the other half is exported. The value of the 2015 crop to Kansas farmers was $1.56 billion, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Lollato, who participated in the Wheat Quality Council’s annual wheat tour across the state May 1-4 just after the spring snowstorm, said in some cases, snow can serve as insulation – a buffer against damage from the low temperatures, especially during the winter months before the wheat stem starts to elongate. But this year’s crop had progressed beyond that stage, and the moisture in the snow, in some cases, resulted in the wheat lying flat on the ground.
“At this time, we are seeing some fields starting to stand back up but without a clear pattern,” he said. “It seems to depend on wheat variety, field location, position within the field, and whether the stem broke or was only bent. The weight of the snow broke the wheat stems in many fields – another possible loss to the wheat yield beyond damage from the low temperatures.”
While yield loss from this snowfall event might occur in most of the fields affected, the magnitude of the loss at this point is uncertain, Lollato said, adding that the damage will be easier to assess in another week to 10 days. The yield loss will depend on the stage of crop development, severity of stem breakage, and number of hours of below-freezing temperatures.
Yield loss due to stem breakage is generally lower if the crop was at boot stage because it still may have time to compensate with late tillers, compared to wheat at the anthesis (flowering) stage or in early stages of grain development.
Based on the latest estimates of crop development across the state, Lollato expects the largest yield losses to occur in southwest Kansas, partly because of where it was in development and because of the amount of stem breakage reported so far.
Longer-term effect on the price of wheat? On bread?
As the extent of damage to the crop becomes clearer over the next few weeks, the price of wheat could increase by $0.25 to $1 per bushel into late spring and early summer if significant injury is confirmed, said Kansas State University agricultural economist Dan O’Brien. On May 9, Kansas hard red winter wheat futures prices for July 2017 delivery were trading near $4.32 per bushel, with cash prices for 11-percent protein wheat in Hutchinson, Kansas, in the range of $3.47 to $3.70 per bushel.
Despite the state’s prominence in U.S. wheat production, however, wheat yield losses and price increases ultimately linked to the spring storm will have negligible, if any effect, on the price of bread in grocery stores, O’Brien said, adding that a loaf of bread has just a few cents worth of wheat.
One bushel of wheat yields approximately 42 pounds of white flour or 60 pounds of whole-wheat flour. A bushel of wheat yields about 42 commercial loaves of white bread, O’Brien explained. If the price of wheat in Hutchinson, Kansas, on May 9 is $3.70 per bushel, then each loaf of bread contains 8.81 cents worth of wheat ($3.70 divided by 42 loaves per bushel).
“If we were to have a $1 per bushel increase in wheat prices because of these crop problems, up to $4.70 per bushel (up 27 percent), then the cost of wheat per loaf would increase to about 11.19 cents per bushel,” he said. “Even if we were to see wheat prices move $2 higher, up to $5.70 per bushel (up 54 percent), the cost of wheat per loaf would only increase to 13.57 cents per loaf.
“The important point is that foreseeable movements in cash wheat prices will only have a negligible impact on the price of bread to consumers,” O’Brien added.