By Rhonda Brooks
Progressive Farmer Managing Editor
OMAHA (DTN) -- Stunned is how Jim Shroyer said he felt at times as he evaluated fields of wheat during a drive across Kansas on Interstate 70 earlier this week.
Shroyer said the combination of drought stress and winterkill has taken a significant toll on the 2015 crop, which is still six to eight weeks away from harvest.
"This is not going to be one of our better crop years by a long shot," noted Shroyer, Kansas State University professor and Extension agronomist emeritus.
That unfortunate message is one he and other area wheat specialists will deliver next week to the 88 participants signed up for the Wheat Quality Council's Hard Red Winter (HRW) Wheat Tour. The group, comprised of millers, bakers, traders, crop insurance agents, farmers and media, will spend Tuesday through Thursday traveling the state, from Manhattan to Colby, evaluating the wheat crop and estimating its yield potential. Scouts leading the tour will release a statewide yield and production estimate on Thursday afternoon.
DTN/The Progressive Farmer is covering the wheat tour and filing daily reports.
DOGGED BY DIFFICULTY
DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said dry conditions, which blanketed much of the state to varying degrees last year, have plagued the HRW wheat crop since planting. The second big stress to the crop occurred in November.
"It turned very cold very quickly, so the plants did not have a chance to get winter hardy," Anderson said.
The doom and gloom continued this spring when the crop broke dormancy.
"There was evidence of some shock and what appeared to be substantial winterkill north of I-70 and south into the central part of the state," Anderson said. "Since then, there's been some milder conditions and some rain in those areas, so hopefully it won't be as bad as folks feared a month ago."
The variability in the wheat crop from area to area is likely to surprise some tour participants next week, particularly those who haven't been in a wheat field before, said Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat. Gilpin is one of the tour organizers.
He noted a lot of the wheat across the state is unusually short in stature, a result of the tough growing conditions. In some cases, tour participants will see plants heading out that are only 12 inches tall.
"Those plants won't reach their ceiling in yield potential," Gilpin predicted.
DTN Senior Analyst Darin Newsom said his conversations with Kansas farmers and wheat industry members indicate the 2015 crop will produce "in the 30% to 50% of average range."
Shroyer added he expects tour participants will see "a lot of 20- to 35-bushel wheat. Some fields will reach the 50- to 60-bushel range, but they're going to be few and far between."
Shroyer said he saw many wheat fields this week that farmers had already given up on and turned cattle into for grazing.
"I think we'll see field abandonment in the range that we saw last year, perhaps even a little higher," he noted.
About 8.3% of the 9.6 million acres planted to HRW wheat in Kansas were abandoned in 2014, according to USDA-NASS figures.
For 2015, Kansas farmers planted approximately 9.4 million acres of HRW wheat. The April 26 USDA Crop Progress report showed that 31% of the crop was rated poor to very poor; 43% was fair, 24% was good and 2% was excellent. About 78% of the crop had jointed, compared to 54% during this same time frame in 2014.
The HRW wheat crop is the largest wheat crop grown in the U.S. "Yet it will take significant damage at harvest to move the needle much in the market," Newsom said. "Traders have been burned too many times on thinking the crop was dead."
BLOWING IN THE WIND
While dry, cold conditions took an early toll on the wheat crop, the problem Kansas farmers face now is disease pressure, particularly stripe rust.
"A better wheat crop in Oklahoma and Texas and prevailing winds from those areas have stripe rust coming on strong here, especially in the southeast and south-central parts of the state," Shroyer said.
Central and north-central Kansas HRW wheat fields are seeing their share of the disease as well, according to Stu Duncan, northeast area Extension agronomist, based in Manhattan. On Friday, University of Nebraska Extension agronomists reported seeing stripe rust in their state.
Cool temperatures combined with rain showers are compounding the stripe rust problem, and wheat tour participants will see plenty of it next week, Duncan said.
"It's in the lower canopy mostly, below the flag leaf minus one," he said. "The further south you go, you'll see it curled up the leaf flag."
Duncan said meteorologists are forecasting wet conditions for the middle of next week, which could exacerbate the problem.
"Farmers here are having to make a lot of quick decisions on whether or not to spray a fungicide," he said.
Application costs range from $12 to more than $20 per acre, depending on the fungicide and application method. Given the current price of wheat (about $4.50 at press time), Shroyer said he tells farmers it takes at least 3 bushels of wheat per acre to breakeven on an application.
Even so, Shroyer advised, "If you have 40-bushel wheat in the making, and you suspect stripe rust will be a problem in the next two weeks, I'd be figuring out my plan and scouting every three days."
Scouting is the operative word. From Salina north, the flag leaf isn't out yet, so Duncan is encouraging area farmers to keep an eye on the crop and to not make any prophylactic fungicide applications.
Editor's note: Progressive Farmer Managing Editor Rhonda Brooks will be tweeting live results from the tour, May 5 through May 7. You can follow her at @RBrooksDTNPF
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