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Plains wheat advancing rapidly

Jeff Caldwell 04/03/2012 @ 9:12am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

What a difference a year can make. A year ago, much of the southern Plains was severely short on moisture, making for disastrous conditions for the region's winter wheat crop. But, this year's an entirely different story.

"A year ago at this time, that area was just in the beginning stages of what would eventually become their worst drought on record, capped off by a summer for that for most of that area was the hottest and driest ever recorded," says Freese-Notis Weather ag meteorologist Craig Solberg. "March of last year was a top-10 dry year for Oklahoma, but it would not surprise me if March of this year ranked as one of the 10 wettest ever."

That shift has caused a dramatic uptrend in wheat conditions; in Kansas, for example, 60% of the crop is rated as good-to-excellent, almost 30% higher than a year ago. The Kansas Ag Statistics Service said Monday the wheat crop's about 3 weeks ahead of the average development pace and 61% jointed. Nationwide, Monday's USDA Crop Progress report showed 58% of the crop is in the top 2 quality categories versus 37% last year. But, there remain some trouble spots, says Bill Spiegel, communications director for Kansas Wheat.

"Wheat looks really good in Kansas, with the exception of extreme west Kansas where dryness is still a big factor. Rains this week could really improve that situation," Spiegel says. "With wheat heading out in southern Kansas, the expectation is that harvest could begin in late May -- which would be remarkable. Of course, a lot can happen between now and then!"

That uncertainty between now and Plains harvest is the most worrisome thing to Solberg, too. At the rate the crop's advanced this year, any late-spring weather issues -- namely a late frost or freeze -- could really hurt.

"The biggest worry that I have for the crop in the southern Plains is still its advanced state of maturity, thanks to our very warm conditions this past winter and in March. The crop is probably more mature here in early April than during any other growing season in history," he says. "That makes the crop very vulnerable if we were to see freezing temperatures later this month. If we can escape that though, then the door is wide open to a very, very good U.S. hard-red winter wheat crop this year."

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