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2024 Hard Winter Wheat Tour Recap
By Jason Jenkins
Friday, May 17, 2024 5:12PM CDT

MANHATTAN, Kan. (DTN) -- As the group of mostly newly ordained crop scouts stood listening to the history of Turkey Red -- the heirloom wheat variety responsible for transforming the plains of Kansas into the epicenter of America's Breadbasket -- a light, misty rain fell upon the tiny town of Goessel, about 40 miles north of Wichita.

It was the third and final day of the 2024 Hard Winter Wheat Tour, but it was also the third consecutive day that the group witnessed May moisture blessing the parched prairie.

It would be a harbinger of the final tour results released just hours later in Manhattan, Kansas. Scouting on Day 3 of the tour resulted in an average yield of 57.3 bushels per acre (bpa), by far the highest of the week. Overall, after scouting 449 fields across the state -- and some into neighboring Nebraska and Oklahoma -- the total weighted average yield for the hard winter wheat tour was estimated at 46.5 bushels per acre (bpa), a 55% increase from 2023 and the fourth-best predicted average in the past decade.

"It's a typical average, non-average Kansas wheat crop," said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations for Kansas Wheat. "There is optimism in the sense that we're going to harvest a lot more acres than we did last year. And barring a disaster, this crop is going to be bigger than 2023."

Indeed, unless conditions deteriorate considerably, this year's Kansas hard red winter wheat crop will substantially surpass the 2023 crop, which was the smallest in more than 50 years. According to Dave Green, Wheat Quality Council executive vice president, the tour estimated a total harvest of 290.4 million bushels, which is 22.4 million bushels more than the 268 million bushels forecast by USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, based on May 1 conditions.

USDA forecast an average yield of 38.0 bpa, up 3 bushels from 2023, but 8.5 bpa less than predicted by the wheat tour. Where the crop will ultimately finish depends largely on weather conditions as it enters the crucial grain-fill period.

"The tour is a snapshot in time," Harries said. "USDA collects its data earlier than the council's tour and over a longer period of time. A lot of things have changed between when USDA started collecting data and now. We have had some recent rains across the state that have made a difference."

During the tour, certain themes emerged. Most notably was the presence of freeze injury, which was prevalent throughout most regions. A late cold snap occurred March 26-27, sending temperatures well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time. This event likely took the top-end yield off many fields.

The other theme was spring drought. While some areas received adequate precipitation or better through the fall and into the winter months, Mother Nature turned off the tap in January or February. Some farmers reported going as many as 150 days without receiving rain that accumulated more than 0.5 inch in a single rain event.

Yet despite the dearth of moisture, the crop has soldiered forward. Harries said that the industry owes a tip of the hat to wheat breeders because good genetics were making themselves relevant.

"There are some wheat fields that probably shouldn't look as good as they do given the lack of moisture they received," he said. "And that's a direct result of the work of our breeders who offer superior varieties against not only drought but also pests and disease."

Harries noted fields that were planted in the fall and able to emerge and establish well were doing much better than those that didn't emerge until late winter or early this spring.

"That's the wheat that was really struggling, in my opinion," he said. "There's an east-west corridor in central Kansas from around Salina to Great Bend, up to Hayes and down to about Dodge City. I would say, that's the roughest spot in the state. I mean, there's pretty bad dryness. Still, a lot of that wheat will be harvested."

Romulo Lollato, Extension wheat and forages specialist at Kansas State University, said that variability has been the theme for this year and the council's tour.

"It's the name of the game," he said. "Even in eastern Kansas, where there's typically more rainfall, you sample a field that does 25-26 bpa, and then five miles down the road, you get 65 bpa."

The presence of stripe rust is also a factor as the crop enters grain fill. In some areas, the crop is past the cutoff for applying fungicides before harvest.

"On any given year, most things that'll happen between now and harvest are bad," said Harries. "We've got upside potential right now, and I'm leaning toward an average yield above the USDA number. How much? That's an educated guess."

Read more about this year's Hard Winter Wheat Tour from DTN:

Tour preview: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Day 1 report: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Day 2 report: https://www.dtnpf.com/…

Jason Jenkins can be reached at jason.jenkins@dtn.com

Follow him on social platform X @JasonJenkinsDTN

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