Estimates and Crop Assessment Division
The Russian agricultural sector is struggling to rebuild as it transforms itself from a command economy to a more market-oriented system. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, large State farms had to contend with the sudden loss of heavy government subsidies. Livestock inventories declined, pulling down demand for feed grains, and the area planted to grains dropped by 25 percent in less than ten years. The use of mineral fertilizer and other costly inputs plummeted, driving yields downward. Most farms could no longer afford to purchase new machinery and other capital investments. After about ten years of decline, Russian agriculture began to show signs of modest improvement. As in Ukraine, the transition to a more market-oriented system has introduced the element of fiscal responsibility, which has resulted in increased efficiency as farmers try to maintain productivity while struggling with resource constraints. Official data indicate a rebound in Russian grain yield in recent years, and although the bumper harvests of 2001, 2003, and 2004 are due in large part to favorable weather, most analysts agree that the gradual improvement will continue.
Wheat accounts for over half of Russia's grain production with average annual output of about 40 million tons. Planted area typically ranges from 23 to 26 million hectares. Winter wheat comprises about one-third of total wheat area but half of total production because of higher yield. Roughly 70 percent of Russia's wheat is classified as food-grade, or milling quality, and 30 percent as feed-grade. The combination of reduced feed demand and several bumper crops since 2001 has led to sharply increased wheat exports and lower imports.
Barley is Russia's second major grain with average production of about 16 million tons from 10 million hectares. Spring barley accounts for 95 percent of barley area and 90 percent of production. Barley is used chiefly as a feed grain, although an expanding brewing industry has boosted the demand for malting barley. Russia produces roughly 500,000 tons of malting barley against brewers' demand of about 1.2 million tons per year.
Russia plants millions of hectares of corn, but less than 20 percent is harvested for grain. The remainder is chopped for silage, usually in August. The area of silage corn declined by about 60 percent during the 1990's, from around 10 million hectares to less than 4 million. Corn-for-grain area can fluctuate from year to year depending on the weather, with lower area during dry years, but typically ranges between 0.6 and 0.8 million hectares. (The USDA does not estimate area and production of silage corn. Official USDA estimates corn are for corn-for-grain only.) Minor grains include rye, oats, buckwheat, and millet.
Sunflowerseed is Russia's chief oilseed crop, and Russia is one of the world's top producers. Because of a combination of high price, low cost of production relative to wheat, and growing demand, sunflowers have become one of the most consistently profitable crops. (See Sunflowerseed Production in Ukraine and Russia.) Few soybeans are grown in Russia, with planted area of roughly 0.5 million hectares and production of 0.4 million tons. About half of Russian soybeans are grown in Amur oblast in the Far Eastern district. Russia produces 0.3 to 0.4 million tons of soybean meal and imports an additional 0.3 million tons.
Russia's main agricultural region extends from the Central district in European Russia, bordering Ukraine and Belarus, to western Siberia 3,000 miles to the east. Of the country's nearly 200 million hectares of agricultural land, roughly 120 million is planted to row crops (chiefly grains, annual or perennial forages, sunflowers, potatoes, and vegetables) or temporarily fallow. The remainder is devoted to permanent meadow or pasture. (View regional breakdown of sown area of major crops in Russia.)
Russia is divided into seven federal districts: Central, Northwest, Southern, Volga, Urals, Siberian, and Far East. Four districts--Central, Southern, Volga, and Siberian--account for 90 to 95 percent of the country's grain output, and the Ural district accounts for most of the remainder.
European Russia, the territory west of the Ural mountains, includes the Northwest, Central, Southern, and Volga districts and is considered the country's winter grain zone. (Winter grains are sown in the fall and harvested the following summer.) Despite the label, more spring grains than winter grains are planted in the winter grain region. The name derives from the fact that over 80 percent of Russia's winter grains are grown in this area. The spring wheat zone stretches eastward from the Volga Valley to the Far East, but little grain is grown east of Western Siberia.
Winter wheat and spring barley are the predominant grains in western Russia, each comprising roughly 25 percent of the regional total grain area. Winter wheat, the region's most profitable grain, is grown mainly in the fertile chernozem (black soil) zone, which includes the Southern district, the southern tier of the Central district, and the southern and central Volga district. Rye is the main winter grain farther north, in the non-chernozem zone, where winters are more severe and the soils less fertile. Winter barley, the least cold-tolerant of the winter grains, is grown only in the extreme south. Oats, a spring-seeded crop, are also grown largely in the north. Sunflowers and corn are grown throughout chiefly in the Southern district.
Average annual precipitation in the prime crop production regions of European Russia, which would include the Southern district and the southern Volga Valley, is roughly 600 millimeters (24 inches), including about 300 millimeters during the growing season (April through October). The weather might be compared roughly to that of Nebraska or South Dakota. Average growing-season precipitation is higher toward the north and west but does not exceed 400 millimeters (16 inches) in the main agricultural regions. The climate is suitable for both winter and spring crops. The Volga Valley is subject to frequent drought--historically two years in five are marked by excessive dryness--and is typically described as a zone of risky agriculture. Nevertheless, the Volga district remains one of Russia's most important agricultural regions because of its ability to produce outstanding grain crops in good years. Few grain fields in Russia are irrigated, even in drought-prone areas.
Roughly 60 percent of Russia's spring wheat is produced in the Ural, Siberian, and Far East districts, and an additional 35 percent in the Volga district directly east of the Urals. As in Ukraine and southern European Russia, the soils of the prime spring wheat production region are highly fertile chernozem and kashtan (chestnut) soils. The weather in Russia's spring wheat region is remarkably similar to Saskatchewan in western Canada: annual precipitation of approximately 400 millimeters (16 inches) with similar monthly distribution, and brutally cold winters that largely restrict crop selection to spring-sown grains and oilseeds.
As its name implies, roughly half of the grain area in the spring wheat region is sown to spring wheat. Spring barley and oats are the other major grains. Relatively few winter grains, oilseeds, or sugar beets are grown east of the Volga Valley.
Russian farmers employ a variety of crop-rotation schemes, some including four or more crops, some only two. A six-year crop rotation in the winter grain region will often include two consecutive years of wheat and one season of "clean fallow," during which no crop is sown. An example of a six-year rotation would be winter wheat, winter wheat, sunflowers, spring barley, corn, and fallow. Wheat almost always follows fallow. According to farm directors, this enables the wheat crop to benefit from the reduced weed infestation (fields are cultivated several times during the fallow season). Fallow also helps to replenish soil-moisture reserves. Some crop rotations include several consecutive years of a forage crop: fallow, two years of winter wheat, and four years of perennial forage. The perennial forage is usually alfalfa; farmers will get three to four cuttings per year, five if the crop is irrigated. In southern oblasts--Krasnodar, for example--clean fallow is frequently omitted and a crop rotation will likely include sugar beets and/or sunflower, the region's chief industrial crops: winter wheat, winter barley, sugar beets, winter wheat, winter barley, sunflowers, and corn.
In the spring wheat region, a typical rotation might feature two consecutive years of wheat, one year of spring barley, one year of oats, and one year of "clean fallow," during which no crop is sown. A seven-year rotation would likely incorporate an additional year of wheat and an additional year of barley or oats. Some rotations include four consecutive years of wheat. The length and sequence of the rotation may vary, but the selection of crops is fairly limited. Some researchers question the value of including a fallow slot in the rotation, but most farm directors in drier production regions continue to include a fallow year, citing the benefits of increased subsurface moisture for the subsequent wheat crop benefits.
The winter-crop planting season stretches over nearly three months. The sowing campaign begins in August in the north and advances southward, concluding in late October in the Southern district. Spring grain planting in European Russia usually begins in April and progresses from south to north. The "summer" crops--chiefly corn and sunflowers--are last to be sown, and planting is approaching completion by late May or early June. The harvest of the small grains (chiefly wheat and barley) moves from south to north and begins in late June in extreme southern Russia. Harvest operations are in full swing by early July and largely finished by mid-to-late August. Corn and sunflower harvest begins in September and continues through October. (View regional crop calendars.)
In the spring wheat region, planting typically begins in May. Oats are sown first, followed by wheat, then barley. Planting is concluded by June. Spring wheat advances through the reproductive stage during mid-July, when temperatures climb to their highest levels and grains are most vulnerable to heat stress. Grain harvest begins in late August and continues through October. It is not unusual for a significant portion of the Russian grain crop--millions of hectares in some years--to remain unharvested, due chiefly to unfavorable weather during the harvest campaign. In an average year, 10 percent of the area planted to spring wheat is abandoned compared to 97 percent of the country's winter wheat area.
In an average year, approximately 13 percent of fall-planted grains (i.e., winter grains) perish over the course of the winter due to a variety of weather-related reasons:
severe frost damage;
ice crust or unusually persistent snow cover, which can smother the crop;
heaving (exposure of the tillering node to frost due to repeated freeze/thaw cycles);
soaking, especially in the more waterlogged regions of the non-chernozem zone.
Winterkill can fluctuate widely from year to year. In the Southern district, for example, winter losses reached 22 percent in 2003 (the winter of 2002-03) and only 2 percent the following year. Winter crop fields that fail to survive the winter are typically replanted with barley, sunflowers, or other spring-seeded crops.
Agricultural enterprises (i.e., former State and collective farms) dominate production of most agricultural commodities in the Russia, including roughly 85 percent of grains and over 75 percent of sunflowerseed. Agricultural enterprises tend to be big, with an average size of nearly 5,000 hectares (roughly 12,500 acres), and are larger in the spring wheat region than in European Russia. Private farms tend to be much smaller, with an average size of about 50 hectares (125 acres), but they account for a growing percentage of Russia's commodity production. In 2003, private farms accounted for 14.4 percent of Russia's total grain production (up from 6.8 percent in 1995), 21.8 (10.9) percent of sunflowerseed, and 10.1 (4.0) percent of sugar beets. Private household plots, with a maximum size of 2 hectares (5 acres), produce an astonishing 93 percent of the country's potatoes and 80 percent of the vegetables, either for personal consumption or for sale at local markets. Only about 1 percent of grains, oilseeds, and sugar beets.
During the 1980's in the Soviet Union, winter wheat was the focus of the so-called intensive technology movement, which was marked by the use of improved varieties and the increased application of fertilizer and plant-protection chemicals. Winter wheat yields climbed in response to the enhanced management practices. The intensive-technology program fizzled following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the loss of massive government subsidies to agriculture. Crop yields declined during the 1990's as farms struggled with cash shortages, a crumbling agricultural infrastructure, and skyrocketing fertilizer prices.
By the late 1990's, the financial situation for many agricultural enterprises had improved due in part to the growing involvement of grain-trading companies and "holding companies" (large, cash-rich, traditionally non-agricultural businesses). These companies became involved in grain and oilseed production, providing operating capital and business expertise in order to secure grain for trade or to guarantee raw materials for food-processing operations. Reported fertilizer application rates have increased modestly since 1999 -- after plunging by over 80 percent between 1990 and 1998 -- but still represent only a fraction of the amounts applied during the peak intensive technology years. Russia has recorded several outstanding harvests since 2000 and grain yields arguably are showing signs of improvement, but weather, not technology, remains the major yield determinant.
One of the chief obstacles impeding a significant and sustained increase in yield is the limited use of certified planting seed. A substantial increase in fertilizer application rates without the use of certified seed could actually be detrimental, resulting in excessive vegetative growth with no increase in grain yield, or increased lodging due to weak stems. According to a report from the U.S. agricultural attache in Moscow, the majority of planting seed used by Russian farmers is "common" seed, saved from the previous year's harvest.
One of the most critical problems facing Russian agriculture, and probably the most difficult to solve because of the high cost, is the shortage of agricultural machinery. Russia’s fleet of machinery is in poor condition and machinery is deteriorating faster than it is being replaced. Most new machinery is obtained through leasing arrangements funded by the federal government and local (oblast) administrations. Since over half of Russia’s farms are saddled with considerable debt and few farms are able to offer sufficient collateral to secure large, long-term loans, the purchase of agricultural machinery and grain-storage facilities is difficult. For further discussion of problems facing cash-strapped Russian farmers, please see 2003 and 2002 trip reports.)
Current area and production estimates are available at PSD Online.