Wheat tour
Undersized Kansas wheat was between two and four weeks behind normal development for the date.

COLBY, KAS. — After observing and measuring wheat during a record 317 stops along circuitous routes from Manhattan to Colby, Kas., scouts taking part in the 61st annual hard winter wheat tour generally agreed undersized Kansas wheat was between two and four weeks behind normal development for the date, showed little disease pressure, and dry conditions were more severe the farther east teams moved.

Undaunted by snakes seen or trod upon by multiple scouts, teams on Tuesday stopped every 20 to 30 miles along their predetermined routes to examine winter wheat growing in unfenced fields. About 95 participants made observations and took measurements that were plugged into western Kansas and central Kansas formulas derived partly from production yields in recent years. Participants noted row spacing, average plant height, crop stance and looked for signs of stripe rust; counted tillers growing in random one-foot spans; and in many cases sliced open a plant to examine the head for signs of freeze damage.

The key estimate derived from scouts’ work Tuesday was an average yield of 38.2 bu per acre based on 317 stops, a reduction from the 2017 prediction of 43 bu per acre for the area based on 306 stops, and down from 40.6 bu per acre as the recent five-year day one average based on an average of 289 stops. The high estimate was 89 bus per acre recorded in a healthy field five miles west of Gypsum, Kas., where scouts counted around 120 tillers per foot. Low estimates of 10@12 bu per acre were recorded in several fields with very poor stands and patches of stunted wheat or bare ground.

Findings differed by route and by individual fields, a natural consequence of the variety of inputs and other producer choices as well as weather events in recent months. But several trends stood out as representatives from each team revealed their findings to the larger group.

More wheat was observed to be heading in Nebraska than in Kansas. Surface dryness and a lack of lengthy, firm roots was noted nearly everywhere, although soil tests revealed adequate moisture at most locations. Although stripe rust and mosaic virus were spotted in a few places, most wheat growing along day one routes was so far behind it hadn’t matured enough to show signs of disease. Observed freeze damage was detrimental in some cases, merely cosmetic in others.

Several teams were able to speak to growers during stops in the fields. Several farmers said they had met with or were scheduled to meet with insurance adjusters. One planned to kill his crop and convert the acres to soybeans in the event of a 10-bu-an-acre forecast. Several fields close to Colby appeared to be sprayed with knockdown herbicides already.  Other farmers said they had opened wheat stalks and examined heads and were confident in their crop.

One veteran wheat tour participant said the crop was the furthest behind he had witnessed on a tour. Route driver Larry Dreiling had little confidence in a resurgence of the crop based on the day’s observances and his history with Kansas wheat.

“Wheat stance was probably one of the worst since I’ve been covering the crop or that I saw as a kid,” Mr. Dreiling said. “This crop could go either way, it really could. We could still see something in the next two months, but I sure don’t think so.”

Looking ahead, many noted weather cooperation in the form of additional rains and temperatures remaining in the 70s and 80s through June was said to be the key to recovery or extremely low yields.

Agronomy experts with Kansas State University’s Northwest Research-Extension Center presented updates on weather and wheat.

Jeanne Falk Jones, multi-county specialist, said Kansas wheat in her estimation is 2 ½ to 3 weeks behind.

“The question is going to be how does that stack up when we get ready to harvest,” she said. “Really, we’re at Mother Nature’s mercy at this stage of the game, because we’re looking at wheat thinking we’re going to have to cram a lot of wheat growth and a lot of kernel development into a smaller period of time, and that may also be a time when it’s starting to get hot.”

Extension center agronomist Lucas Haag noted the variability of conditions across counties.

“We really do have some areas here in the Northwest where we really do have some decent yield potential yet,” he said. “By and large, wheat that was dusted in ahead of the rain did have an opportunity to root down into some deeper moisture. Profile-moisture-wise, we’re sitting in pretty good shape here at Colby and a decent area of Northwest Kansas.”

Mr. Haag also broached a long-term shift in crops that affect what’s seen on tour. In north-central Kansas, wheat has shifted in its placement in crop rotations.

“The economics is pushing more wheat after beans, wheat after corn, wheat after sorghum,” Mr. Haag said. “Less wheat on wheat, less wheat after fallow, a shift that can lead to late planting conditions, which limits tiller initiation, limits yield potential. Wheat, economically, has not been toeing that line, so we’ve found other ways to intensify that system.”

Mr. Haag suggested tour scouts on day two attempt to identify the previous crop in an effort to uncover the reason behind variability between counties.

Twenty-four vehicles carrying four-scout teams planning to perform the same measurements and calculations were set to depart Colby early Wednesday and proceed along one of six circuitous routes designed to offer the best impression of wheat condition in western, central and southern Kansas. One route was to swing into north central Oklahoma for a few stops.