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Only one word can describe the wheat crop: DRY!

By Larry Dreiling

Driving through Kansas during the recently completed Wheat Quality Council Hard Winter Wheat Tour, the record turnout of more than 70 crop scouts were taken aback by the dry conditions leading into the most critical time for wheat development.

SEED CHECK—Rosie Meier (left), grain accounting manager for the Great Bend Kansas Co-Op, and Joe Hahn, staff agronomist with Syngenta AgriPro, Junction City, Kan., inspect some stalks of wheat at AgriPro's Junction City research center during the Wheat Quality Council's 2011 Kansas wheat evaluation tour.

Completed May 5, the tour's calculated average for the Kansas wheat crop was 37.4 bushels per acre compared to 40.7 bushels on the same routes in 2010. The crop scouts are invited to join a pool to estimate a production total for the Kansas crop, basing their estimates on expected yield and acres to be harvested. This year, 54 participants joined the pool, offering an average estimate of 256.7 million bushels.

(Reporter's note: This reporter estimated the crop at 247.5 million bushels.)

In contrast, the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service May 11 pegged the crop forecast at 261.8 million bushels based on conditions as of May 1. This is down 27 percent from the 2010 crop. If realized, this would be the lowest production since 1996.

The KASS estimate pegs this year's crop, to be harvested from 7.7 million acres, will be down 300,000 acres from 2010. This is the smallest area harvested since 1957. Yield per harvested acre is expected to average 34 bushels, down 11 bushels from last year and the lowest yield since 2007.

The smaller crop can be blamed on dry conditions that have lingered throughout the season. Seeding of wheat acres began the second week of September and was behind average until the middle of October when it jumped ahead of normal. Emergence progressed behind normal all fall, according the KASS estimate report.

It didn't help matters that temperatures were warmer than normal and precipitation was light most of fall. Kansas did receive some much-needed rain the last two weeks of November, but as the wheat entered dormancy, the condition of the crop Nov. 21, 2010, was rated 36 percent good to excellent, compared to 72 percent a year earlier.

Very little precipitation fell in Kansas during December and January. The eastern part of the state did receive snow in February, but precipitation in the western half was still limited. The dry conditions have persisted all spring with high winds blowing the last week of March and the first week of April, especially in the western half.

What moisture that landed on Kansas just hasn't been enough to have an impact on the wheat condition or soil moisture ratings. The dry weather caused the wheat condition to decrease to 21 percent good to excellent by May 1, compared to 70 percent last year. This is the smallest good to excellent condition in early May since 1996.

The scouts on the WQC tour saw only a smattering of the increasing moisture deficits the High Plains are facing. It was only on May 3 that the U.S. Drought Monitor posted a rating of abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions from central Kansas northward through central Nebraska.

The worst case of drought on the High Plains is a large area from western Texas into southeastern New Mexico that has deteriorated into the most severe "exceptional drought" category. Most of this region has only received about 10 percent of normal precipitation over the last six months. In addition, exceptional drought was introduced in parts of the Oklahoma Panhandle and adjacent areas where again six-month totals were only about 10 percent of normal amounts.

Other areas declining into extreme drought or exceptional drought included relatively small swaths of central and northwestern Texas, and part of east-central New Mexico.

Officially, KASS rates the crop 22 percent very poor, 28 percent poor, 32 percent fair, 17 percent good, and only 1 percent excellent.

Meanwhile, the WQC tour's first-day analysis of six different routes from Manhattan to Colby showed the crop to be quite variable on most routes, which stopped to scout the crop in 267 fields. Yields for the day ranged from 16 to 78 bushels per acre with the Day One average on all routes at 40.0 bushels. This compares with 40.7 bushels one year ago.

Meanwhile, a route through Nebraska found good wheat, as a group led by Nebraska Wheat Board Executive Director Royce Schaneman discussed their state's crop during the Colby overnight stopover. The group reported they found very little disease pressure in their state's crop.

"We are dealing with a late completing crop this year, which should make a difference," Schaneman said. Nebraska yields were pegged at 42.3 bushels per acre with a production number of 63 million bushels.

A group scouting eastern Colorado also reported in at Colby, led by Colorado Wheat Executive Director Darrell Hanavan.

"We saw stands that were fair to good and they had little disease," Hanavan said. "The crop was mostly at flag to boot stage with pretty adequate moisture."

Colorado's scouts reported a yield average of 32.4 bushels and estimated a total production of 78.8 million bushels for 2011, higher than the five-year average of 72.9 million bushels.

Day Two of the tour saw the cars traveling from Colby to Wichita. Several cars went into the far western Kansas counties with three cars covering the northern tier of Oklahoma counties. It's at this point the effects of dry weather hit home for the scouts.

The Day Two tour average fell to 33.4 bushels per acre compared to 40.3 in 2010. The range of expected crop yields ran from zero to 84 bushels--the latter found in an irrigated field-- on 264 stops.

The Oklahoma Wheat Commission conducted its own tour during the period, reporting in at the Wichita overnight stop. Harvested acres will likely be reduced in Oklahoma once producers see exactly what the yields are going to be, according to OWC Executive Director Mike Schulte.

"We've had a large area of the state suffering from drought," Schulte said. "In early April, we added some freeze injury. This will further add to the reduced yields we'll see."

Premature ripening is reported in shallower soils with grain shrivel and expected lower test weights being seen as scouts went west, Schulte added. The Oklahoma scouts estimated a yield for their state's crop at 20.5 bushels per acre and a total production of 67.7 million bushels. This compares with 141 million bushels estimated at this time last year.

Day Three concluded the tour with the cars traveling from Wichita to Kansas City. Only 30 stops were made in this area of smaller, though high-yielding, production. Yields ranged from 33 to 94 bushels with the Day Three average at 49.5 compared to 46.4 last year.

It was at the tour's traditional final stop at the Kansas City Board of Trade that the estimate of 256.7 million bushels for the 2011 Kansas wheat crop was released. As always, WQC Executive Vice President Ben Handcock reminded reporters who gathered around him for comments at the end of tour that the number produced is a snapshot in time regarding the potential of the crop.

"My personal observation is that most parts of the state are seriously short of moisture," Handcock said. "I arrived in Kansas expecting to see a much poorer crop than last year, and that's what I saw. As the tour progressed, I became more convinced that the crop would be much lower than average. I believe our 37.4-bushel average will be a bit too high.

"The 10-year average for Kansas is around 350 million bushels. Our estimators, at 256.7, are much below that number, and I believe even that number is too high. I suspect that a good number of the small tillers will be lost in the next few days without significant moisture. I think there is a lot more downside potential to this crop than upside."

If there's any good news to take away from the lower estimate, Handcock said, it is that most of the crop appears to show very little disease pressure as one would expect in a very dry year.

"We have many producers sitting on a 10- to 15-bushel crop they don't know for sure what to do with," Handcock said. "If good rains were to develop, they might even abandon more wheat and plant grain sorghum or something. Even now, I believe the abandonment will be 20 percent or higher."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

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