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Talk of a "new" wheat disease striking High Plains farmers had many worrying about possibilities of a wheat shortage this winter. Are the concerns justified?

USDA estimates that so far in 2017, wheat viral diseases—most importantly, the Wheat Streak Mosaic virus—caused an estimated $76.8 million in direct losses to the nation's wheat farmers. WSM virus, along with High Plains Mosaic virus, Triticum Mosaic virus and Barley Yellow Dwarf virus, altogether caused a production drop of up to 19.2 million bushels of wheat this season, or almost 6 percent of the crop.

The wheat virus threat comes atop drought in the U.S. Great Plains this season, as well. All gave markets nerves that supply may be down significantly, and drove futures markets for spring wheat to their highest level in more than four years. Although futures prices have settled, they're still about 25 percent up over last year, indicating buyers may still be concerned about acquiring sufficient supply.

With the harvest more than 60 percent complete, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said just over one-third of the current wheat crop is in good or excellent condition, versus 66 percent at this time last year. Spring wheat—grown mostly in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Idaho, and Montana—is in particularly poor condition in Montana and South Dakota, where the USDA says 65 percent to 75 percent of the crop is in poor or very poor condition.

But USDA statistics suggest that if supply shortages exists, they likely won't last long. Strong wheat production in recent years has left the country with ample stockpiles, which should be sufficient to offset any current shortages.

Old crop wheat stored as of June 1, 2017, totaled 1.18 billion bushels, up 21 percent from a year ago, USDA reported in late August. On-farm stocks are estimated at 192 million bushels, down 3 percent from last year, while off-farm stocks, at 993 million bushels, are up 28 percent from a year ago. Old crop Durum wheat stocks on June 1, 2017, totaled 36.3 million bushels, up 31 percent from a year ago. On-farm stocks, at 18.4 million bushels, are up 51 percent from June 1, 2016. Off-farm stocks totaled 17.9 million bushels, up 15 percent from a year ago.

USDA also recently increased estimates of world stockpiles of wheat based on reports of higher production in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Global supplies should remain sufficient that, should the worst occur, imports could fill any domestic supply gaps.

Retailers are rolling out initiatives to drive back-to-school sales, including efforts to recruit parents to feed their kids healthier lunches. But how much of the advice is food fitness, and how much is food fashion? Here are some surprising answers.

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The reality, according to medical research, is that even though managing a child's diet is central to controlling diet-related health issues like type 1 diabetes, what we know about managing blood sugar through diet is still surprisingly contradictory. But one area where science is pretty certain: High-fiber, low-sugar carbs. In practical terms, that means whole grains. And contrary to conventional wisdom, shoppers don't have to pay more to eat healthy grains.

Full-fat milk?

For decades school lunch programs followed government health advisors' recommendations to cut whole milk from their offerings in favor of skim, often flavored with added sugars to increase palatability and lure kids back to drinking it. Several recent studies now call that advice into question, showing that drinking whole milk could actually lower the risk of diabetes and improve attempts to manage weight.

Gluten-free?

Gluten-free is not only unnecessary to an estimated 99 percent of the population, nutritionists are now beginning to caution that the craze stands to actually hurt more than it helps. Why? Gluten-free and whole-grain are contradictory. Gluten-free products typically require refined grains, which are relatively lower in fiber and nutrients.

No-salt?

In the face of years of consensus science on the danger of salt, several new reports are questioning the necessity of banishing salt from kids' diets. It appears the balance between the minerals sodium and phosphorus may be more important than the absolute amount of each, and it's important to remember that the least nutritious meal of all is the one a kid throws away because it tastes bad. Some are therefore calling for a cautious return to some salt.

Deli meats?

For years, "we've known" that processed meats--ham, bacon, hotdogs--are the real villains of the meat counter, responsible for higher risks of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. But work reported in 2015 that re-analyzed the data from nine large dietary studies questions how strong the conclusions are. Eating processed meat has shown an association with those diseases, the researchers granted, but so many possible causes still confound the research that it's impossible to say whether processed meats really cause an increase in any of those diseases. Balanced, judicious inclusion of them in the diet is still OK.

Wild-caught fish?

We know fish is a great source of not only protein, but also the beneficial highly unsaturated fatty acids. But must they be caught from the wild to be fit? In short: No. Wild stocks of fish around the world are flat-lining, and the only alternative to maintain affordably fish supplies is fish farming. Research shows no important nutritional differences in fish quality between wild and farmed. Objections over aquaculture appear to be related to the same differences in vision about concentration and industrialization of livestock farming.

Anbitiotic-free?

The highly publicized danger that using antibiotics in food production causes human drugs to fail is purely theoretical. One team of independent scholars, for instance, spent more than two years reviewing over 250 scientific papers on the subject, publishing their results in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. They concluded that if you review only the facts — absent the passion of politics — little to no risk exists.

Organic?

Consumer studies have shown again and again that parents buy organic products first and foremost because they believe they’re getting safer, more nutritious food for their kids. And many retailers, looking for that sales advantage, have done nothing to dissuade them of that notion—some have even openly advocated the message. The problem is no science meaningfully supports that claim, a fact of life USDA recognizes when it cautions that organic is merely a name for a process of growing plants and animals—it says nothing about the quality or safety of the food.

Where are beef prices heading?

Just five years ago, the American beef cow herd was at its lowest size in half a century. Battered by withering years-long drought, ranchers had sold cattle off in order to weather the lack of feed and grazing, resulting in a herd size at 1950 levels.

In testament to the old adage about coming down and going up, today USDA reports cattle farmers are on a steam-up that's nearly unprecedented in pace. The total expansion that's taken place since 2014 is the largest breeding-herd size increase the country's experienced since 1970. The number of cattle and calves USDA counted on Jan. 1 is 2 percent higher than a year ago, and the number of breeding cows, those available to produce more calves, is 3.5 percent higher. Total beef-cow numbers are now at their largest point since 2010, and the number for the Central Plains region which includes Nebraska are up 22 percent vs. 2016.

Naturally, that surplus of female cattle ready to have calves portends a higher supply. USDA estimates last year's total calf crop will be up 3 percent over the year and up 4.5 percent over the year before that. And because those beef cows take two years to produce an offspring that salable as a beef animal, that increase in breeding animals is calling for expectations for incease in beef supply well into 2018 and even 2019.

Does all the promised supply increase mean we are looking at a coming beef price crash? Live cattle prices continue to be pushed downward by higher inventories and resulting larger meat supplies. Beef has followed all livestock, poultry and milk prices that have retreated in response to larger supplies. Since prices peaked in 2014, U.S. beef, pork and chicken production have all increased quicker than the number of consumers to buy it. Combined with the effects of a strong dollar on export sales, the result has been a sharp reduction in prices. Projected prices for 2017 are 28 percent below the 2014 level for fed cattle. However, projections by University of Missouri expect the price decline to be stable, albeit falling, and not turn into a wholesale crash. Retail prices, in particular, should stabilize. Retail meat prices have been declining, Missouri reports, though not as rapidly as wholesale and farm meat and animal prices. Retail prices tend to exhibit less volatility than other segments of the marketing chain. When meat supplies are large, farmers tend to take a smaller percentage of consumer dollars spent for meat.

USDA's latest projections call for wholesale beef cutout values were already being driven upward toward the end of the first quarter by the annually anticipated tendency for both Choice and Select beef cutouts to gain momentum heading into the spring grilling season. At this time, the market transitions from lower-valued end cuts to more expensive middle-meat cuts. Select cutout values were gaining as a result during March; however, wholesale boxed beef cutout values began showing signs of weakness in late-March.

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