The hard red winter wheat crop has been plagued by drought, disease and winterkill, dampening optimism for Kansas' 2015 harvest as the annual wheat quality tour wraps up Thursday afternoon with the expected release of its forecast for the size of this year's crop.
The annual estimate is based on the three-day tour, during which more than 90 participants trudged through hundreds of wheat fields to come up with collective yield estimates used to calculate a final production figure.
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Jim Shroyer, Kansas State University Extension wheat specialist, summed up what he saw after the first two days: variable, short and thin. But the recent rains gave Shroyer and other examiners hope that much of the crop could recover before harvest.
"This last rain is worth millions of dollars," Shroyer said.
Last year's crop, decimated by drought, was the smallest Kansas harvest in 30 years at 246 million bushels. Farmers had hoped they'd be able to recover with a better 2015 growing season, but instead battled drought stress, stripe rust disease, winter kill and pest infestations that varied from area to area across the state.
The tour's first leg traversed the northern counties of the state, where freeze damage was more likely. The industry group Kansas Wheat reported the expected average yield of 34.3 for Tuesday was slightly lower than last year's estimate and was the lowest first-day average since 2001.
"A lot of really short wheat, a lot of really stressed wheat, a lot of winterkill damage, a good deal of abandonment in certain northern counties — just an overall extremely stressed crop on day one is what we saw," Leoti farmer Rick Horton said. "A little bit surprising, I didn't think it was going to be quite like that."
On Wednesday, participants traveled across arid western Kansas, where they saw the most drought-stricken wheat in the state.
Yields in southwestern Kansas were estimated to range from 0-18 bushels per acre, Kansas Wheat reported. Along the stretch from Dodge City to Wichita, wheat fields could potentially bring in as much as 35 to 50 bushels per acre — but stripe rust is present in this same area. Tour participants estimated Wednesday an average yield of 34.5 bushels an acre for their second day.
As his group neared more productive wheat fields in south-central Kansas, Shroyer said he expected that, overall, this year's wheat crop will end up better than last year's. But he was also quick to add, "that is not a resounding endorsement."
The final estimate will be announced Thursday as the convoy works its way across wheat fields from Wichita to Kansas City, Missouri.