Russian wheat farmers are holding out for a repeat of last year’s mild winter and rainy spring to bolster the outlook for a 2016 harvest threatened by drought in recent months.
The ground is so hard in parts of Russia after weeks without rain that farm equipment is breaking under the strain of planting the winter wheat crop. Yet meteorologists, analysts and producers still see time for improvement, citing the turnaround in prospects for the harvest at the start of this year that followed a mild winter in 2014 and spring rains.
“If they have a benign winter with good snow cover and good rainfall next spring, I think that would save the crop,” Donald Keeney, a meteorologist at MDA Weather Services in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said by e-mail.
A better harvest will help Russia maintain wheat exports that the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates will be the world’s largest in the season ending June 30, 2016, and keep downward pressure on global prices. In 2010, drought and a harsh winter hit wheat sown in both autumn and spring, reducing the local harvest to 41.5 million metric tons. That prompted Russia to ban exports, driving international prices up 47 percent.
The world has become more dependent on output from the Black Sea region in Russia and Ukraine in recent years as buyers shifted from more expensive suppliers such as the U.S. International prices on the Chicago Board of Trade rose to an eight-week high on Oct. 7, partly on concerns drought would damage the harvests in the two countries.
Since Sept. 20, the amount of moisture in the soil in the Krasnodar region, the biggest provider of Russian wheat for export, has sunk to levels last seen in 2012, according to data from Moscow-based market researcher SovEcon.
“Krasnodar’s soil is still very dry,” SovEcon Managing Director Andrey Sizov Jr. said on his Twitter account on Oct. 19. “Risk of poor winter wheat crop is significant.”
Still, there are some signs of improvement in weather conditions, while wheat prices traded in Chicago have declined by about 6 percent from their highs earlier this month.
Rain came to some parts of Krasnodar on Oct. 13, bringing moisture to a depth of 15 centimeters (6 inches) and nourishing seeds 3 centimeters below the surface, Vladimir Putintsev, deputy head of the plant growing unit of farm owner PAO Razgulay Group, said by phone.
Soil humidity in Russia’s southern Rostov region, where Razgulay also farms, is sufficient for plants to develop for another two weeks, he said. Conditions for wheat planting at the company’s operation in the central region of Belgorod are much worse, Putintsev said, describing the soil there as “baked dry” and so hard that it ruins farm equipment.
“Showers will come in time to improve late fall growth” in southern Russia and much of Ukraine, Commodity Weather Group LLC said in a note on Tuesday. In addition, the Russian Agriculture Ministry says the nation’s farmers plan to sow 14.3 million hectares (35 million acres) of land with winter wheat this autumn, a similar level to last year.
Even after autumn 2012, when conditions were worse than today, Russia managed to produce 52.1 million tons in the following harvest, its fifth-largest on record, according to data compiled by the government. By comparison, next year’s crop may total 58.7 million tons, down just 2.5 percent on the previous year, MDA estimated in an Oct. 16 report.
“Crops will again be off to a challenging start in the Black Sea region,” Utrecht, Netherlands-based Rabobank said in a research note published on Wednesday. “Weather in May will be the main factor determining next year’s yield. Last year’s plantings also faced dry conditions early on, but above normal yields were still realized.”