KANSAS CITY — Though developmentally behind the average pace, the 2019 hard winter wheat crop is growing drought-free with minimal disease pressure so far. If ideal conditions unfold in the six to eight weeks until harvest, increased production and higher yields of a lower-protein crop may result, a stark contrast to the drought-stressed, low-yielding, high-protein crop of 2018.
Such were the findings of 76 wheat scouts who examined 469 Kansas wheat fields in early May during the Wheat Quality Council’s annual tour of Kansas, the No. 1 hard winter wheat production state, and from other assessments of the crop in Nebraska, Colorado and Oklahoma.
Crop height varied, with some later-planted wheat reaching only 10 to 12 inches but more frequently knee-high or slightly above. Walking 30 to 40 feet into fields allowed close assessment that varied widely from lush, green, thick stands to spotty rows and areas of scant growth where seeds had perhaps washed out.
As the tour proceeded west, scouts found more wheat fields in need of moisture. Soil probes revealed damp subsoil below drying or crusted topsoil in some fields.
Conditions overall matched the latest U.S.D.A. Crop Progress report, in which Kansas wheat ratings as of May 5 were mostly steady from the prior week at 11% excellent, 47% good, 32% fair, 8% poor and 2% very poor. Of the other six major producing states, only Oklahoma and Colorado saw declines in good-to-excellent ratings for the week: 74% in Oklahoma (79% a week earlier), 63% in Texas (61%), 71% in Nebraska (68%), 57% in South Dakota (57%), 73% in Colorado (76%) and 81% in Montana (78%).
Scouts witnessed wheat in various stages of development, from flag and pre-boot in northcentral and western Kansas to headed as the tour progressed back to the east through southern Kansas. In its latest update, the U.S.D.A. said winter wheat was 14% headed in Kansas, up from 4% the previous week, comparable to 17% a year ago, but far below 41% as the 2014-18 average for the date. Wheat was 64% headed in Oklahoma (74% a year ago, 83% as the average), 77% in Texas (73%, 76%), 2% in Colorado (1%, 4%) and 1% in Nebraska (0%, 2%). Wheat wasn’t yet headed in Montana or South Dakota.
While scouts noted minimal disease pressure on the tour, reports of stripe rust have increased across scattered central and southcentral counties, thus far confined to lower canopy of the plants, considered a lower risk factor. Traces of leaf rust also were spotted near Wichita. Furthermore, southeastern Kansas wheat is at moderate risk for fusarium head blight as it moves into critical growth stages.
A bigger concern was wheat being developmentally behind normal pace, “shoving the grain-fill stage further and further into the summer heat,” which may limit yield, said Lucas Haag, the Northwest agronomist at Kansas State University’s Northwest Research — Extension Center in Colby.
Fall planting of winter wheat was inhibited by rain that sharply limited fieldwork, pushing seeding well into October and, in some cases, November. Some fields intended to be seeded to wheat were never planted. As a result, Kansas farmers seeded 7,200,000 acres to wheat for harvest in 2019 compared with 7,700,000 acres a year earlier, according to the U.S.D.A.
Calculations from 469 field stops across Kansas resulted in an overall estimated yield of 47.2 bus per acre, which compared with 37 bus per acre as the 2018 tour forecast. It was the highest average yield forecast for a Kansas wheat tour since 48.6 bus per acre in 2016. The recent five-year average tour forecast was 40.2 bus per acre. The actual Kansas wheat yield in 2018 was 38 bus per acre, according to the U.S.D.A.
At the tour’s terminus at the I.G.P. Institute in Manhattan, Kas., 50 tour participants offered their individual Kansas wheat production forecasts. The average of their forecasts was 306.5 million bus, up 10.5% from 277.4 million bus in 2018 but down 8% from 333.6 million bus in 2017. The recent five-year average Kansas wheat outturn was 346.9 million bus.
Meanwhile, wheat in adjacent states was evaluated by other tours. Plains Grains forecast 2019 Oklahoma wheat production at 119.27 million bus, up 70% from 2018. PlainsGold, a Colorado wheat industry group, forecast the state’s wheat production at 97.2 million bus, up 38% from 2018. The Nebraska Wheat Board forecast the state’s wheat production at 47.4 million bus, down 4.2% from 2018.