WICHITA, Kan. — Heartened by higher prices and easing drought conditions, the nation's farmers planted winter wheat on much more of their land this season — a move that could drive down prices at harvest time if production from all those acres comes to fruition amid an uncertain weather pattern.
Across the country, the amount of winter wheat planted for harvest in 2012 came in at 41.9 million acres, the National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Thursday. That is an increase of 3 percent from 2011 and up 12 percent from 2010.
The agency credited the increase to the higher prices and a rebound in planted acreage in the major producing states of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, where dry conditions had limited planting the previous season.
Winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer.
Farmers and agricultural analysts had anticipated that more acres would be used for winter wheat given the welcomed precipitation last fall and the acres left idle after other summer crops failed. But Kansas State University economist Dan O'Brien said most analysts had not expected that the amount of acreage planted would increase so much.
O'Brien said if farmers get adequate rain or snow in the spring, those added acres would mean more bushels that would tend to increase the supply and lower crop prices.
"There is a lot of uncertainty and weather trends in place that really raise the question of whether that will happen," O'Brien said. "I don't think we can say that is going to happen yet with a lot of certainty."
The La Nina weather pattern is still hanging around and that tends to mean drier conditions in wheat-growing areas, he said.
Texas Panhandle wheat farmer David Cleavinger, a past president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, is in a holding pattern on what he'll do with the 1,200 acres of winter wheat he planted a bit late last fall because of the state's historic drought. Though they have gotten timely rains and some snow the past few months, the wheat plants are "really, really small" in height, he said.
"There's enough moisture for it right now, but there's no submoisture whatsoever," Cleavinger said. When the wheat comes out of dormancy, "it's going to need more moisture. We keep hoping we get an 18-inch snow storm. It will be OK if we get more rain."
As he waits, Cleavinger will be considering what to do with the wheat he ends up with: He can sell it as grain, sell it to cattle feedlots as silage made from wheat, cut it and sell it for hay at a time in Texas where there is little supply and prices are high — as much as $250 a ton — or let cattle graze in his fields.
"Odds of hay prices being pretty good should be an advantage for us to take it for hay rather than taking it to grain," Cleavinger said. "It all is tied back to weather and rain. So if you don't have moisture, you don't have those options."
Using his wheat for hay would be less risky, he said, because it wouldn't still be in the fields when spring storms can bring damaging hail.
Hard red winter wheat, the type used for making bread that is grown in places like Kansas, accounts for the vast majority of the nation's winter wheat acreage. It rose 6 percent to 30.1 million planted acres.
Kansas, known as the nation's breadbasket, alone planted 9.5 million acres of it, an 8 percent jump. Texas planted 5.9 million acres, up 11 percent from a year ago. Oklahoma seeded 5.5 million acres, an 8 percent increase.
Plantings of soft red winter wheat and white winter were both down nationwide.
"What it indicates is more hard red winter wheat planted," O'Brien said. "I don't know if we can say with a lot of confidence that will necessarily result in higher production until we work our way through this spring uncertainty."
Associated Press writer Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, contributed to this report.