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Russia, Ukraine poised for more dryness, stoking wheat worries

Official European crop watchers flagged the threat to Russian winter grain sowings from “scarce” rainfall, even as meteorologists forecast that most of the former Soviet Union was to remain largely dry for at least the rest of the month.

Mars, the European Commission’s agricultural meteorology division, said that, after a dry August and only “slight” improvement this month, “topsoils are dry”, in southern Russia, which is responsible for growing much of the country’s wheat for export.

The extent of the dryness, at a time when farmers are undertaking plantings of grains ahead of the 2016 harvest, was “raising concern about soil preparation, the sowing of winter cereals, the germination of seeds and crop emergence”, Mars said.

“Rain is needed for a successful sowing campaign of winter wheat.”

Russian farm ministry data showed that domestic growers had planted 8.3m hectares of winter grains as of Friday, down from 9.1m hectares a year before.

‘Important deficit’

In Ukraine too, Mars noted that “warm and dry conditions prevailed” since the start of August.

“Regions such as the Vinnitsa and Kiev oblasts,” in west-central Ukraine, “have been accumulating an important deficit since May, with less than 50% of the average rainfall from May to mid-September”, although some parts of the country had received “substantial rainfall” this month.

Separately, weather service MDA said that, over the weekend, parts of north western Ukraine, and Belarus, received some rain.

However, dry weather “prevailed across the rest of the winter wheat areas in the Black Sea region,” MDA’s Kyle Tapley said.

‘Stressing germination’

Indeed, “dryness remains widespread”, particularly across central Ukraine, and in Russia southern Central Region and western North Caucasus, Mr Tapley added.

These conditions are “delaying wheat planting and stressing germination of any wheat that has been planted”, he said.

And no substantial rain relief is expected until at least next month.

From next weekend “rains may increase some in central Ukraine and western Central Region… but amounts are still not expected to be particularly heavy”.

‘Crumbs of comfort’

The comments come amid a growing focus among investors on former Soviet Union dryness as a, rare, issue seen as potentially supporting wheat prices, after a strong harvest in the region, as well as in the likes of the European Union too.

“In the ‘crumbs of comfort’ department this week we have ongoing dry conditions in the Ukraine and Russia which are threatening winter wheat planting,” said traders at a major European commodities house, with significant interests in the former Soviet Union.

“The other area of concern is India,” where below-average monsoon rains have reduced hopes for the country’s harvest which starts in March next year, although with the country not generally a major force in international markets, its crop fortunes tend not to have a huge impact on world prices.

In Europe, wheat producers, particularly of feed grain supplies, are also hoping for potential support to values from a poor corn harvest, which stands to see a switch of grains in livestock rations.

‘Crop conditions critical’

In fact, Mars on Monday nudged higher its forecast for the EU corn yield, by 0.03 tonnes per hectare to 6.43 tonnes per hectare, after a series of downgrades thanks to dry and hot summer weather.

The revision reflected largely an upgrade to 8.90 tonnes per hectare, from 8.63 tonnes per hectare, in the estimate for the corn yield in France, the EU’s top producer of the grain, where rains late last month “led to a significant improvement in the conditions of summer crops” in some areas.

However, Mars cautioned that its upgrade was down also to an assessment that much damaged corn will be harvested for silage, rather than grain, raising average yield prospects for the crop that is left, but lowering production hopes nonetheless.

“In central European regions… crop conditions remain critical.”

Silage vs grain

In Poland, the group’s models “show soil moisture levels to be below critical levels for grain maize in all regions except Malopolskie”.

“A considerable part of the maize crop might be used as green maize rather than grain maize.”

In Hungary, which experienced one of the hottest summers on record, “the heatwave of early July had a negative effect on the pollination of maize, and the high temperatures of late July and August constrained grain-filling.

“The biomass accumulation is very low in eastern Hungary and below average in the whole of western Hungary.”

Yields were expected to come in “low”, and a “decrease in grain maize acreage is likely as the most damaged fields are being harvested as silage maize”.

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