By Gary Wulf
FARGO, ND (B)--Hard red spring wheat yields in North Dakota and surrounding states may attain levels not seen since 1992, according to yield data gathered during a three-day field tour organized by the U.S. wheat Quality Council. Tour members linked their optimistic production outlook to improved farm management methods, which caused a marked decline in the incidence of scab disease. Durum yields--although higher than 1999--failed to match pre-tour expectations.
Algebraic yield formulas applied to 355 hard red spring wheat fields across Minnesota and the Dakotas found plant populations and kernel counts resulting in a weighted-average yield calculation of 36.5 bushels per acre.
The figure topped 1999 tour estimates by a full 6.0 bushels and was, in fact, the highest yield forecast by the group since 1993.
"It was better than the last few crops I've seen up here," said Ben Handcock, executive vice president of the Pierre, SD-based wheat Quality Council. "Not having so much scab may be the biggest blessing."
Scab disease--which is known as Fusarium head blight in agronomic circles--arises during periods of wet weather, such as that which struck the northern Plains earlier this summer.
The fungus infects wheat at flowering, causes the plant to ripen prematurely and can lead to yield losses of 30-70%. The fungus may also produce vomitoxin, which can cause liver, lung and heart damage to humans and livestock that consume infected grain.
"In Minnesota, one of the things we have done is hammer on (the need for crop) rotation and hammer on the use of fungicides," said University of Minnesota small grains specialist Jochum Wiersma. "We are now up to where 60-70% of all spring wheat acreage is sprayed with fungicide, so farmers are doing a better job of controlling leaf diseases and scab."
Although fungicide treatments cost approximately $13-14 per acre, studies show such sprays can reduce the amount of wheat yield and grain quality lost to scab by 50-75%.
"I was surprised to see a lot less disease then we were anticipating," said Jim Peterson, marketing director of the North Dakota wheat Commission. "From a quality standpoint, our lower levels of scab are certainly going to be helpful in marketing North Dakota spring wheat to both domestic millers and overseas buyers."
If tour projections are correct--and they have fallen within 0.5 bushels of final government estimates in each of the last two seasons--area spring wheat yields will also exceed the current 33.66 bushel weighted-average U.S. Department of Agriculture yield for the region, by some 7%.
"It (the HRS crop seen during the tour) was not spectacular, but was a little better than the government had been forecasting," noted Dave Green, with ADM Milling in Kansas City.
The Council's wandering wheat caravan also made stops at 113 durum wheat fields, calculating weighted-average yields of 26.6 bushels per acre.
Although that forecast surpassed the tour's projections of 23.2 bushels in 1999, it still fell far below the 29.0 to 29.4 bushel averages projected for Minnesota and Dakota durum by USDA last month.
Some tour participants attributed the shortfall to the greater genetic susceptibility of durum to scab infection.
"Your worst spring wheat hybrid will be about equal to your best durum hybrid for scab tolerance," said Marcia McMullen, plant pathologist at North Dakota State University.
Others said volatile weather conditions also produced disappointing durum
"I actually had a little bit higher hopes than what I found," Wiersma said.
"Durum is a dryland crop and it just doesn't do too well when there's too much
moisture and 12 inches of rain in one night is too much moisture."
Monsoon rains that struck the region in late June and early July also
produced heavy weed flushes, which coupled with heavy scab, completely destroyed
some durum acreage.
"We saw a field near Brocket, where you couldn't hardly find the durum among
the wild oats, and when we did it was all scabby," said Rolla crop consultant
Marvin Nelson. "The was virtually nothing left to harvest."
Other tour members said simple economics may have also prompted
cash-strapped producers to direct available supplies of fungicide to spring
wheat acreage, at the expense of lower-yielding durum.
"Durum used to bring quite a premium price, but now it's only worth about half a buck more (per bushel) than spring wheat," said one tour member. "So some people probably started on the spring wheat fields and ran out of money for fungicide before they got the sprayer into the durum."
With a wide variety of weather impacting localized areas agronomists and millers attending the tour said they anticipate great variability in the quality of HRS and durum wheat raised in the region this season.
"As a miller, we certainly like high test-weight, but the scab is probably going to hold the lid on high test-weight," said Green. "The protein looks like it's going to offer a lot to choose from though."
Tour participants predicted protein levels ranging from a low of 12% to a high of 15%.
"I would guess we are probably looking a average protein (levels) overall," said Handcock. "In some places they've had enough stress that there may be some protein, but some of the very high yield spots, I would expect to be fairly low in protein."
Another tour member added, "we talked to an elevator manager in Rogers (N.D.) who expected lower protein this year, of about 13-14%. And he said last year, they got 14 to 14.5% protein around there."
Spring wheat /STRONG> harvest is already underway in southern sections of North Dakota and Minnesota, and tour-goers predicted that all HRS fields would be ripe within 21 days.
Durum harvest is not projected to begin in many areas for three-four weeks, with some northern acreage still as much as six weeks away from full maturity.
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