KANSAS CITY — The finish line is within sight for the 2020 winter wheat harvest. For hard red winter wheat, most of the crop left to be harvested was in the northern Plains of South Dakota and Montana. In the case of soft winter wheat, most fields left to be combined were in northern Michigan.

The US Department of Agriculture indicated the hard red winter wheat harvest was completed in Oklahoma by July 5 and in Texas by July 12. Combining by July 19 was 97% completed in Kansas, 79% in Nebraska, 92% in Colorado, 33% in South Dakota (34% as the recent five-year average for the date) and 3% in Montana (9%).

For the US hard red winter crop, “it’s a year with a lot of variability,” said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer of Kansas Wheat. “Really good yields in south central Kansas with good test weights but lower protein, somewhat offset by a little bit higher protein in western Kansas, where yields weren’t as good and test weights ranged widely.

“In a two-week period, as western Kansas and Colorado samples started becoming part of the data set, we went from 11.2% up to 11.8% average protein. It’s important to keep in mind that even though higher protein was available in those areas, there were fewer bushels because of the lower yields. So, when it gets weighted for production, we still might have a little lower-than-average protein for the US hard winter crop.”

The Oklahoma harvest was conducted under the most ideal conditions in recent memory. That state managed to pull in a record yield at 42 bus per acre despite a severe lack of moisture in the panhandle and some western areas.

But when combines reached the Oklahoma-Kansas border area, wheat fields were not uniformly ready for cutting, Mr. Gilpin observed.

“Combines couldn’t just go from field to field to field once they got into south central Kansas,” he said. “Producers had to scout fields for readiness, dryness, whether it had turned sufficiently brown.”

Combines moved swiftly through the state from that point until rains slowed the last third of the harvest in the state. By the third week in July, only about 2% of the Kansas crop, mostly in the northwest and north central cropping districts, remained to be harvested.

The 2020 hard red winter wheat crop endured a variety of challenges that included drought conditions in the fall and spring, two spring freeze events and stretches of dry, 90-degree days in June.

Drought stress and heat in parts of western Kansas, the Oklahoma panhandle, eastern Colorado and southern Nebraska adversely affected yields in those areas. These same stresses during the grain-filling stage of development led to lower test weights in eastern Colorado and western Kansas. At the same time, drought stress increased proteins in some of those areas.

Producers also noted increased prevalence of “yellow bellies” — softer, plumper kernels that didn’t finish the final development stage into hard, vitreous kernels. Increased yellow belly occurrence was attributed to improved genetic characteristics during the past 10 years that have generated varieties that reach for a higher end yield goal. In 2020, amid drought stress that reduced tillers and freeze events that killed many primary tillers, wheat in some areas kept trying to generate new growth late into the development period.

“That’s how these new genetics really came on to do everything they could in a stressed condition to produce grain,” Mr. Gilpin said. “The wheat crop was trying everything it could to finish off with as many kernels as it could, and those last kernels just weren’t able to finish out properly. There’s a lot of variability in test weights, a lot of variability in proteins, and with the high temperatures in June, the crop just didn’t have an opportunity to finish out uniformly.”

Ultimately, the yellow bellies would not have any impact on marketing the wheat and, in fact, were seen as a positive, Mr. Gilpin said.

“It’s an indication that breeders have really made improvements to the yield capabilities and yield stability of these new varieties despite the different stresses this crop underwent,” Mr. Gilpin said. “Varieties 10 years ago didn’t have that capability, and breeders since, from both the public and private sectors, have made advances in developing higher-yield, more tolerant varieties. The fact that Oklahoma set a record yield and Kansas was still in the high 40-bus-per-acre range is a testament to the improved genetics farmers have available.”

Outside those western areas, the picture was notably better, especially in the central corridor of Kansas, Oklahoma cropping districts other than the panhandle, and in South Dakota and Montana. Winter wheat cut in central Kansas featured good kernel characteristics and outstanding test weights, but generally tested lower proteins.

The harvest in Nebraska by July 22 was wrapped up in the southwest, south central and southeast cropping districts. Test weights in those areas ranged from 55 to 66 bus per acre with proteins as low as 9% and in some areas reaching as high as 14%. Combining was nearly finished in an extremely dry southern Panhandle region where producers said extreme sawfly damage cost between 5 and 15 bus an acre. In the northern panhandle, harvesting was about 70% completed by July 22 after brief delays caused by rain and hail.

Thanks to moderate temperatures and good rainfall, the South Dakota crop seemed likely to see a high bu-per-acre average even as that state’s total production may be lower due to lower planted acreage.

“As the harvest progresses north, the last 20% of the winter wheat harvest —South Dakota, Montana — is going to finish off with really strong potential for winter wheat harvesting yields and good kernel characteristics,” Mr. Gilpin said.

Meanwhile the soft winter wheat crop was nearing completion. The USDA said that by July 19, harvest completion was 99% in Missouri (97% as the recent five-year average), 94% in Illinois (96%), 96% in Indiana (89%) and 95% in Ohio (83%).

The later-planted Michigan crop was 46% harvested by July 19 compared with the recent five-year average for the date at 36%. The first new crop loads reached elevators eight days earlier than in 2019, a central Michigan miller said.

Combining in the Saginaw Valley and thumb of Michigan cropping districts was expected to be completed by July 26. Harvesting in the northern part of the state will be completed shortly thereafter.

Michigan wheat yields were off from recent years due to instances of frigid cold in May followed by a stretch of 90-degree days in June that took a toll during key crop development phase, the miller said. However, crop quality, depending on area, was considered good to excellent with only rare incidences of vomitoxin.