Wheat tour members find crop in worse shape than in 2013

The drought has again badly damaged the state’s wheat crop, making it considerably worse than last year, according to the just-concluded Kansas Wheat Tour.

After the three-day tour, during which more than 500 wheat fields across the state were examined, tour participants estimated state production at 260 million bushels, the worst harvest since 1996.

Members of the tour estimated the statewide yield at 33 bushels per acre. Actual wheat production in 2013 was 328 million bushels with a yield of 40 bushels per acre, both of which were down from 2012.

Harvest is six to eight weeks away and the stakes are high: Not only does the wheat crop typically generate $1.5 billion to $2 billion for the state economy, but the sheer size of the Kansas wheat harvest means it affects wheat prices across the world.

The tour, organized by the Wheat Quality Council, is an attempt to get an early look at the quality and quantity of the crop. Participants included representatives of national grain traders, shippers, processors, millers and bakers, national and state media, agriculture scientists, plus a few Kansas farmers. Even representatives of Wal-Mart made the trip.

But what makes the wheat particularly worrisome, several said, is that while a field may be showing an already-anemic 15 or 20 bushels per acre now, that could quickly go to zero as the weather heats up if rain doesn’t fall over the next 10 to 14 days. Temperatures are expected to rise into the 80s and 90s over the weekend before falling to more seasonable 70s.

“When hotter temperatures come, it can cook it really fast,” said one farmer Wednesday during a gathering of the participants.

The tour stopped in Wichita Wednesday night, gathering at the LaQuinta Inn on West Kellogg to share their findings from north central, northwest, southwest and south central Kansas, the state’s biggest wheat growing regions.

What they found was sobering: Drought had stunted the height of the plants and substantially reduced potential yields. There’s a great deal of variation, of course, with some fields at 15 bushels per acre and some at 50. But, clearly, they said, the southwest corner of Kansas and down into the Oklahoma panhandle is consistently the worst. The lack of moisture can be seen in the deep cracks in the ground running through some fields.

There was only minor freeze damage in Kansas and very little evidence of insect or disease infestation. As more than one participant put it: When there’s no water, there are no insects or diseases.

About 10 percent of Kansas wheat acreage was abandoned last year because the wheat wasn’t worth harvesting, according to one participant, and that will likely rise this year.

“The feeling from the crowd is discouragement because of the wind and the dry soil,” said Dave Green, director of quality control for ADM in Kansas City. “But it’s not a goner, yet.”

“Poor moisture, big cracks,” one participant summed up western Kansas Wednesday night. “Another week or so (without rain) and it will be done.”

Justin Gilpin, executive director of the Kansas Wheat Commission and a tour participant, said that while last year was also a disaster in much of western Kansas, the difference this year is that the drought damage has spread to central Kansas, lowering yields there.

In a stop at a wheat field just east of Newton on Thursday, Gilpin noted how short the wheat stalks were.

The wheat plants are already heading out at about a foot rather than a more typical 20 inches.

“The plant’s saying that’s all the moisture I can find; I got to get going,” Gilpin said.