US winter wheat has entered spring in its worst condition in 26 years, undermined by drought which has prompted a sharp deterioration in southern Plains crop ratings.

The US Department of Agriculture, in its first crop progress report of 2022, assessed at 30% the proportion of US winter wheat in “good” or “excellent” condition – the lowest initial reading crop reading for any year since 1996.

The figure was well below the 40% figure investors had expected, according to a Reuters poll. Indeed, it was worse than the most pessimistic analyst had forecast, with the range of expectations at 32-47%.

The five-year average initial reading is 51%, on GrainPriceNews calculations, with last year’s figure at 53%.

The initial impact of the data was to spark a sharp rise in winter wheat futures, with the Chicago soft red winter wheat, the world benchmark, jumping by 3.1% to $10.41 a bushel.

July hard red winter wheat futures gained 2.9% to $10.69 ¾ a bushel.

Winter decline

The rating show a marked deterioration over the winter, which the crop entered with a good-or-excellent reading of 44%.

The decline was particularly marked in central and southern Plains states which represent the core growing area for hard red winter wheat, with the 27% of Nebraska crop rated as good or excellent down 37 points over the winter.

In Kansas, the top wheat-producing state, the rating fell by 30 points to 32%. A year ago, the reading stood at 54%.

Just 7% of the Texas crop was rated good or excellent, down 13 points over the winter.

‘Exceptionally dry’

The decline reflected spreading dryness in the southern Plains, which has a history of rainfall deficits in La Nina periods.

In Kansas, the proportion of topsoil rated “short” or “very short” of moisture was, at 54%, three times that a year before.

In Texas, where 80% of topsoil was short of moisture, USDA officials reported that some parts of the state were “exceptionally dry with the Northern and Southern [Texas] Plains, the Blacklands, and South Texas being the driest”.

They added that “while irrigated wheat was reported as doing as well as expected, the dry land crop around the state is in need of a beneficial rain”.

In Oklahoma, where the proportion of topsoil short or very short of moisture amounted to 59%, up from 23% a year before, “76% of the state was in the moderate drought to exceptional drought category”, state officials noted.

The proportion of Oklahoma wheat rated good or excellent, at 22%, was down from 48% heading into winter – and from a 70% reading heading into spring last year.

Washington improvement

Readings were broadly higher in soft red winter wheat-growing states, although the 48% good-or-excellent number for Illinois represented a decline of 34 points over the winter, and of 26 points year on year.

In Illinois, too much rain, rather than too little, has been the issue, with 42% of the state rated as holding surplus moisture.

The state with the most improved crop was Washington, a big grower of white wheat, with a rating of 65%, up from 22% heading into winter.

More than two-thirds of Washington was rated as having “adequate” topsoil moisture, while recent temperatures there were reported as above average.