Does the poor start to the US winter wheat crop really matter?

In one sense, no. The link between weekly crop condition data, as compiled by the US Department of Agriculture, and the yield actually achieved is a loose one, even close to harvest.

For winter wheat crops surveyed now, six months before they see a combine, the correlation is non-existent.

The winter wheat crop with the worst opening rating of century before now – the 2013 harvest, which kicked off with a 40% “good” or “excellent” figure – ended up with a yield which was the second best on record at the time.

By contrast, the yield managed by the 2014 crop, which started off with a 65% rating, came in at an eight-year low.

On that basis, the 28% good or excellent figure reported this week by the USDA, the lowest on records going back 35 years, looks nothing to worry about.

Planted vs harvested area

However, that does not tell the full story.

Where there is a little bit more of a read across from initial crop condition to the final harvest tally is in abandonment. That is, crops making a poor start lose area along the way.

Returning to the 2013 harvest, of the 43.2m acres of winter wheat planted, nearly one-quarter didn’t make it to the finish line.

And the 2021 harvest, with an abandonment rate only marginally lower, started off with a good or excellent reading of 41%.

While the correlation between initial rating and lost acres is by no means perfect, it is the better-starting crops which have tended to have more staying power.

Start right

That makes sense, in that establishment is such an important developmental phase.

No amount of spring-time rainfall can rescue a winter crop that never made it to first base.

And with this year’s crop such an outlier, in having a rating so much worse the previous bad ‘uns, don’t bet against a large amount of it being reseeded next year, unless rain relief comes a lot sooner than the spring.