In terms of prices, things are steady in the durum market as the end of November approached.
On a national level, prices are continuing to hold at the $6.30 per bushel range, which is where the market has been for the previous couple of weeks. That’s up about $1 per bushel since early October, according to Jim Peterson, marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission.
“I think some of the highest nearby bids for milling quality durum are around $6.50,” he said. “In somewhat of an ironic twist, we’ve seen a big pick-up in our export pace, and it hasn’t been for number 1 and number 2 grades, it’s been for some of the lower grades of durum going to Italy. Italy has been purchasing both U.S. lower grades as well as Canadian 4 and 5 grades.
“Part of the rationale is just the wide price spreads that are there,” he continued. “At the local level, the lower end durums are probably around $3.50 a bushel, whereas high quality durum, if you were trying to load significant quantities of it, is closer to $7-$8 to purchase it, so it’s about half the price.”
Peterson explained that some Italian millers are looking at it because the U.S. has high protein and that’s the shortage in their local crop this year. He added that Italy is able to get vitreousness and higher falling numbers from the Spanish and French crops, as well as part of their local crop. In addition, they are cleaning out the damaged kernels in U.S. and Canadian durum to upgrade it to milling quality.
U.S. exports have really expanded in recent weeks. As of mid-November, U.S. durum sales stood at 24.6 million bushels, which is 70 percent ahead of a year ago. USDA is projecting that the U.S. would sell 25 million bushels for the whole marketing year through the end of May.
“If we’re able to complete all the shipments, we’re already at USDA’s export goal with about half a year to go,” he said. “But there is about 10 million bushels of those 24.6 (million) in sales that remain to be shipped, so it’s not all in the books yet.”
Half of the U.S. durum exports have been to Italy, with 20 percent to Africa and 20 percent to unspecified destinations.
“We’ll see what happens with the Italian demand for the next couple months, but it’s certainly been very strong early on,” he said.
North of our border, Canadian durum exports are running about 50 percent ahead of a year ago. Canada has about 30 million bushels shipped out through the end of September, including some big sales to Turkey and Morocco.
“Both those countries suffered production shortfall and Turkey had some quality issues this year,” Peterson pointed out. “Some of tension between the U.S. and Turkey has probably hampered some of export sales there, but nonetheless, Canada has made some good sales.”
In terms of Canadian durum quality, 38 percent is rated a number 1 or a number 2, according to the most recent estimates. That’s the lowest in three years.
Typically about 60-65 percent of the Canadian crop is rated 1 or 2, so obviously quality will become progressively tighter as the year progresses, he noted.
On the U.S. domestic mill side, mill grind has been running very strong.
“We’re running about six days of grind each week which is very positive,” Peterson said. “So far, mills have been able to get by with some pre-bought 2018 stocks. But it will be interesting as we turn toward the first of the year and get into early 2020 if mills are able to meet their contract specifications for pasta manufacturers for quality. That certainly could be a positive going forward, to pull top end prices higher.”
Looking at the world durum situation, Peterson said some analysts are already starting to ramp up a pretty good increase in planted acres next year but he doesn’t feel that will happen at the current prices levels.
“Certainly durum has moved to a premium over bread wheat, but $6.50 is not a level to get a lot of interest in the desert durum area or a big increase in acres across northern areas,” he said. “We’ll see what happens over the winter, but I think we will need to add more to the prices to get more interest.”
The world durum situation now is certainly positive, according to Peterson. World durum production is at 1.3 billion bushels compared to 1.4 billion a year ago. As stated before, there is a smaller crop in Turkey, and the European Union (EU) is short of protein levels, so they’re going to need imports. Kazakhstan has also had some problems with its crop. In the past couple years Kazakhstan has been a nemesis to the U.S. in regards to the EU durum trade.
Those factors, plus the fact feed use of durum is projected to be up 20 percent due to quality issues in the U.S. and Canada which is “shrinking the pile,” are positives.
“I think those are some positives to look forward to,” he said. “But there’s probably a bit of frustration with producers because there is not a more significant rally for top quality durum considering how many acres didn’t get harvested and how poor the quality was at some of the tail end of the harvest. There are some factors that point to potential and I guess we’ll have to see if they come to fruition as we close out 2019.”