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Winter-wheat acres rise on Great Plains rebound

CHICAGO -- U.S. winter-wheat acreage rose for a second straight year, climbing more than analysts expected, as farmers in the Great Plains boosted planting on ground left bare from last year's drought.

About 41.947 million acres were seeded from September through November, up 3.2 percent from a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Thursday in a report. The average estimate of 16 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News was for 41.023 million acres.

Parts of Texas, Oklahoma and southwest Kansas had half the normal amount of rain in 2011, according to the National Weather Service. In some areas, the dry weather caused crops planted in the spring, including corn, to fail, leaving fields open for replanting, while favorable insurance rates encouraged farmers to seed wheat by allowing them to lock in profits, said Bill Spiegel, a spokesman for Kansas Wheat, a growers group.

"The fall crops were harvested in plenty of time, so farmers could come back in and plant wheat," Spiegel said in a telephone interview from Manhattan, Kan.

"The time crunch was not as big an issue in 2011. Farmers in drought-stricken parts of the state had failed crops, mostly corn and grain sorghum, so there were open acres that they wanted to plant."

Winter wheat, grown in the Great Plains and Midwest, goes dormant until March and is harvested starting in May. The hard, red variety grown in the Plains is used in bread, while soft, red wheat is used in cookies and cakes. Winter varieties made up about 74 percent of the U.S. crop in the past season.

Acres have rebounded since 2009, when planting plunged to the lowest since 1913 after wet weather swamped fields from Ohio to Illinois.

Growers planted 30.1 million acres with hard-red wheat, up 6 percent from a year earlier, and 8.37 million acres with soft- red varieties, down 2 percent, the USDA said. White-wheat acreage was 3.49 million, down 3 percent.

In a separate report, the USDA said unsold U.S. reserves of all varieties of wheat on Dec. 1 totaled 1.656 billion bushels, down 14 percent from 1.933 billion a year earlier. Analysts in a Bloomberg News survey expected 1.703 billion.

World inventories at the end of this marketing year may total 210.02 million metric tons, the highest in 11 years, the USDA said. That's up from a December estimate of 208.52 million, and compares with analysts' expectations of 207.73 million tons. Production in Australia and India may reach records, while Russia's estimated output was estimated at 56.23 million tons, up from 41.51 million in the previous year, as crops recovered from drought.

"Of the grains, wheat has been the best supplied over the last year or so," Sterling Liddell, a vice president of food and agribusiness research at Rabo AgriFinance in St. Louis, said by telephone before the report. "Australia has had a good harvest, so wheat is available there, which is one reason why the price still remains a little bit lackluster."

The USDA lowered its estimate for unsold U.S. supplies at the end of the marketing year on May 31 to 870 million bushels, from 878 million forecast in December. Analysts expected stockpiles of 841 million bushels.

Wheat is the fourth-largest U.S. crop, valued at $13 billion in 2010, behind corn, soybeans and hay, government data show.