US WHEAT PRODUCTION EXPECTED TO RISE BY 11 PERCENT

US WHEAT PRODUCTION EXPECTED TO RISE BY 11 PERCENT

U.S. wheat production is expected to be at least 11 percent more this year than last, and possibly twice that much, according to grain analysts.

Although harvest is a long way off and freezes and dry weather could slash production, analysts estimated 1992 production from 2.2 to 2.36 billion bushels. That compares with last year's 1.98 billion bushels and 1990's bumper crop of 2.736 billion.Some suggested 1992 production could be even higher if winter wheat damage

from last week's freeze was minimal and weather conditions are ideal.

And that's despite a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate in January that winter wheat seedings were slightly lower than last year, even though wheat prices were higher last fall and set-aside acreage has been reduced from 15 percent to 5 percent. Winter wheat in 1991 accounted for nearly 70 percent of the U.S. crop.

Sid Love, senior grains analyst with Helming Consulting Services in suburban Kansas City, said, "I wouldn't be shocked if USDA revised those winter wheat plantings upward."

USDA will issue its next prospective plantings report March 31. Most other analysts don't expect USDA to change its winter wheat plantings estimate but do expect higher production than last year.

Last year's soft red winter wheat crop was a disaster at 325.2 million bushels, down from 547.1 million in 1990. Although some areas suffered freeze damage last fall and possibly last week, production estimates for this year range from 380 million to more than 420 million bushels.

This year's hard red winter wheat crop has improved dramatically since last fall, when dry weather forced many farmers to plant late in the top producting state of Kansas and other areas. Most analysts were reluctant to estimate HRW wheat production, but said it would be more than 1 billion bushels compared with last year's 901.4 million and 1990's 1.199 billion.

Most analysts expect hard red and soft white spring wheat seedings this year to be above 17 million acres, up from 15.6 million in 1991, and durum seedings to be slightly less than 3 million, down from 1991's 3.25 million.

Most estimates for total U.S. wheat yield were in the neighborhood of 37 bushels an acre, up from last year's 34. Some analysts, but not all, think a better crop and lower exports next crop year might raise US ending stocks to more than 500 million bushels from this year's 20-year low of 390 million. Katharina Zimmer, senior grains analyst for Merrill Lynch in New York, is one of those.

"If anyone would have told me last fall that hard red winter wheat would look this good now, I would have told them they were nuts," she said.

Other analysts agree that the hard red winter wheat crop has improved substantially. The futures market also seems to agree. New-crop July futures have dropped sharply after reaching contract highs Feb. 11.

Futures last week plunged despite strong concerns that freezing weather early last week might have damaged winter wheat. A clearer picture of damage won't emerge until next week or even later.

But the general feeling is that at most no more than 50 million bushels were lost, and possibly much less, the analysts said.

Steve Freed, director of Research for ADM Investor Services in Chicago, said, "We escaped a major reduction of this crop."