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U. S. Wheat Farmers Starting Combines, Counting Losses

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Harvesting of the new U.S. winter wheat harvest was off to a less-than-enthusiastic start last week as farmers began combining what was left of weather-ravaged southern wheat fields.

From Texas, where drought and a late freeze cut estimated yields in half or worse, across weather-damaged fields in Oklahoma and water-logged Arkansas wheat fields where concerns about disease were mounting, U.S. wheat farmers were counting their losses even as they cranked up their combines.

“We normally get 50 to 60 bushels per acre but this year we’ll be lucky to get 25 bushels an acre,” said Bob Beakley, of Ennis, Texas, who planned to start harvesting his new hard red winter wheat crop late last week.

Beakley’s pessimistic view runs across the key growing state. Texas usually is among the top three U.S. winter wheat growing states and last year produced 99 million bushels. But this year, the state is forecast to produce only 64.8 million bushels, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

U.S. winter wheat production overall is forecast at 1.50 billion bushels, down 20 per cent from 2008.

“The wheat harvest this year is not going to amount to much,” said Wichita Falls, Texas farmer Fred Dwyer. “About everything bad that could happen to us has happened.”

Dwyer said though he usually hires a “custom cutter,” a contracted harvesting team to bring in his bushels, this year the crop is too “terrible” to warrant the work. Instead Dwyer’s grandson will use a single combine to harvest a wheat crop suitable only for saving as seed for next year.

Dwyer cannot even take solace in recent gains seen in wheat prices. The market is still about $2 a bushel lower than last season, he said.

Texas was only about three per cent harvested as of May 18, the USDA said, with many freeze-damaged field baled for hay, rather than harvested for grain. A full 73 per cent of the Texas wheat crop was rated in poor to very poor condition, USDA said.

“This certainly has not been a good wheat year,” said Texas Wheat Producers executive vice-president Rodney Mosier. “It’s pretty devastating to some producers.”

The situation is only expected to improve slightly to the north in the neighboring key growing state of Oklahoma. USDA has forecast a crop there of 80.5 million bushels, down 52 per cent from the 2008 harvest.

Even in smaller wheat-growing states like Arkansas, the outlook is grim. The USDA has forecast the new winter wheat crop there will be down 58 per cent from a year ago, forecast at 23.3 million bushels.

Last Monday, plant pathologists with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture said weeks of wet weather have increased the chances of yield-damaging wheat diseases.

“The extensive rain events have pushed diseases… typically minor problems, to be major,” said Scott Monfort assistant professor-extension plant pathologist based at the Rice Research and Extension Center at Stuttgart.

Monfort said the disease problems included septoria leaf blotch, powdery mildew, and fusarium head blight, also known as wheat scab.

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