WICHITA — On day two of the Wheat Quality Council’s hard winter wheat tour, crop scouts left Colby, Kas., on the morning of April 30 and headed for points south and east a few hundred miles away. Some groups escaped the rain and near-freezing temperatures. Some made a few stops in the wind and rain. Still others made close to 14 stops in conditions the old hands called “about the worst”: steady pelting rain and winds so high that opening the doors of their rental Suburbans was a test of upper-body strength. Using their yardsticks to count stems per foot became an exercise in speed measuring. They eyeballed the condition of the stalks and the soil and made their judgments.
Weather exercised tyranny over both the wheat and the wheat tour participants. Everybody agreed the stressed western Kansas counties, beset by continuing drought and widespread freeze damage, needed the air to warm, as long as temperatures don’t go overboard and hit the upper 90s for a protracted run as harvest approached. More freezes were a real threat, and they could tip some fields with the potential of yielding from about 25 to 35 bus an acre into disaster territory. The much-better looking stands of wheat east of Dodge City also needed warm weather to catch up in size and progress to making healthy kernels.
But what was the television blaring at the motel, where everyone gathered after a day of hard work estimating yields, disease threats, freeze damage, height, stage of development and days until harvest? There was yet another risk of temperatures falling below freezing on the nights of May 1 and May 2 across much of Kansas. It seemed like the 2013 hard red winter wheat crop was having a tough time getting a break.
The second day estimates of bushels per acre on the trek by different routes from Colby to Wichita were another lesson in extremes. High estimates ranged from 76 bus an acre — though most were in the 60s and 50s — to lows that plummeted to 0 in one field but were mostly clustered from 12 to 30 bus an acre. The official day’s tally was an average of 37.1 bus an acre over 264 total stops, down from a day two average of 43.7 bus an acre over 286 stops last year. Combining the two days and averaging those results yielded an average of 40.5 bus per acre and 541 stops, down 16% from the 2012 wheat tour estimate during a year of early warm temperatures and faster-than-normal crop advancement.
Even optimists who expected the 2013 wheat crop to show unexpected resilience and bring in higher yields than currently forecast do not believe the Kansas crop will be as large as in 2012, when the state outturn was 382.2 million bus.
At the same time, a veteran crop tour participant said about the relatively early timing of the W.Q.C. hard winter wheat tour, “between now and harvest is an eternity,” when changing conditions are a given.
Interest in getting a handle on the Kansas crop during the tour is high because it fills an information gap until the U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes its first survey-based Crop Production report for winter wheat next week.
People on the crop tour like to say that wheat has nine lives and it has used some of them up already in 2013, a year when the extremes of lingering drought and cold may be conspiring to cut the size of the crop. Time will tell how much wheat makes it to harvest in Kansas.