By Pam Smith
DTN Progressive Farmer Crops Technology Editor
DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Wheat scouts headed to Kansas this week better bring their boots. Recent rains have left muddy fields across the Wheat Belt, warned Ben Handcock.
Dodging mud holes isn't something that happens every day in Kansas, especially this time of year. Those rains are expected to push yields higher on what already appears to be a decent crop overall, said Handcock, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council which organizes the tour of Kansas's hard red winter wheat fields every year.
While there are some pockets of wheat still struggling, Handcock said he expects scouts to measure some good wheat this year and find the crop more mature than typical. The April 24, 2015, USDA Crop Progress report put the Kansas crop 23% headed as compared to the 15% average. The report also pegged 36% of the wheat fair, 48% good and 5% excellent.
"We're going to see some winterkill, some stripe rust and a few other diseases in places, but I think for the most part it is a pretty darn good wheat crop," Handcock told DTN. "Still, it's a long time until harvest and a lot of stuff can happen."
Handcock said early dryness in some area could mean scouts see heads with fewer spikelets or seeds per head. "We'll be talking to scouts about how to weigh that in assessments," he said. Test weight and all other factors might be good, but a few less kernels do make a difference in overall yield, he noted.
This year's wheat crop has used up some lives getting this far, noted DTN Senior Analyst Darin Newsom. "Starting with coming out of dormancy in February, an Easter freeze in March, drought, flood (seems impossible, but not for the Southern Plains) and disease. All that is missing is pestilence, and maybe the scouts will be lucky enough to be swarmed by hordes of grasshoppers along the way," he ribbed.
Still, Newsom predicted the wheat scouts will find the best wheat in south-central Kansas, particularly in the Sedgwick, Reno, Kingman, Harper and Sumner County areas. The northwest and southwest legs of the tour will be more likely to spot production problems. However, Newsom noted that yield can be difficult to measure accurately because even thin wheat can recover and produce if weather cooperates from here on out.
"The overall average is likely to be in the 38 to 42 bushels per acre (bpa) with 50 bpa plus in the key south-central part of the state and calculators coming in at 30 bpa out west. Most likely, the western crop is really in the 15 bpa to 25 bpa range," Newsom said.
The tour gives the first comprehensive picture of Kansas's wheat crop and will be closely followed by farmers, food makers and traders -- commercial and speculative alike. However, DTN Analyst Todd Hultman noted that even poor yield estimates would be unlikely to move the market much this year. The world's wheat plate is full to overflowing.
"USDA gave Kansas an all-wheat yield of 37.0 bushels in 2015, lower than the national yield of 43.6 bushels. If Vegas said 37.0 this year, I would take the over, but domestic wheat supplies at 50% of annual use is the most important market factor to consider. With USDA giving U.S. winter wheat a high crop rating while we are hearing mostly favorable reports from Europe, Ukraine, South Russia and China, there is nothing the tour can say to affect wheat prices this year," said Hultman.
The 2016 tour will have 82 scouts spreading out, pulling samples from about 500 fields to estimate the state's average yield and production. Grain merchants, flour mills, wheat farmers, agronomists and media are among the participants. Hancock notes that NASS evaluates wheat fields at approximately the same time, so it's interesting to see how the numbers align.
"For the most part, this tour has traditionally come pretty close to measuring the crop, considering there's still a lot of season left to play out," Handcock said.
The 2015 tour estimate for Kansas was 288.5 million bushels with a calculated yield average for the entire tour of 35.9 bushels per acre compared to 33.2 bushels on the same routes in 2014. The scouts use a formula provided by Kansas Ag Statistics to arrive at a calculated average. The formula is based on a 10-year rolling average and changes slightly from year to year.
On July 1, 2015, USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service forecast the Kansas 2015 winter wheat crop at 334 million bushels with an average yield of 38 bushels per acre. In 2015, total Kansas production was reported to be 321.9 million bushels. Area harvested was 8.7 million acres and yield was 37 bushels per acre. Protein content averaged 12.7 percent with a test weight of 59.9 pounds per bushel and a moisture content of 11.2%. The wheat graded 53% No. 1 and 38% No. 2.
Kansas seeded 8.8 million acres of HRW wheat for 2016 harvest. Handcock said the significance of the tour goes beyond yield. "It gives the industry a snapshot of what will be in their flour mills and bakeries. They get to look at the quality and get a feeling of what they will be dealing with. We do this tour as a service to the industry," he noted.
In other words, there's no substitute for getting your boots muddy. "For two months NASS has said Oklahoma wheat wasn't ahead of normal and now, everyone is saying the crop is at least two weeks ahead of normal -- even in Kansas.
"Seeing headed wheat should give us more to go on, but the main thing is just getting out and actually seeing it," he said.
The tour starts Tuesday morning and data is combined each evening to create the average yield for that leg of the tour. On Thursday, the tour will release its statewide yield and production estimates.
Here's what the schedule looks like:
-- Tuesday: Manhattan to Colby, with one route hitting Nebraska's southern-most counties. Colorado, Nebraska give updates.
-- Wednesday: Colby to Wichita, with one route surveying northern Oklahoma. Oklahoma, Texas give updates.
-- Thursday: Wichita to Manhattan. This year the tour releases statewide yield and production estimates around noon, prior to the market close.
DTN/Progressive Farmer Crops/Technology Editor Pamela Smith will be tweeting her observations from the field. Follow her at @PamSmithDTN to see her latest updates or to ask her questions.
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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