- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The hard red winter wheat crop in Kansas is forecast to be larger than last year’s harvest, according to the annual wheat quality tour, but still falls far short of what’s normal because of drought, disease and winterkill.

This year’s wheat production is forecast at 288.5 million bushels, participants in the three-day Wheat Quality Council tour said Thursday. The estimate is based on observations by more than 90 participants who trudged through 659 wheat fields across the state. The average yield statewide was forecast at 35.9 bushels an acre.

Their convoy found drought stress, winterkill and stripe rust disease in this year’s crop, said Justin Gilpin, executive director of the trade group Kansas Wheat.

“What wasn’t expected, of course, was all the rain that we got this week during the tour. So in each of those drought-stressed fields that we were in, we were looking at drought-stressed plants that were surrounded in mud,” he said.

That made it “real hard” to figure the plants’ potential given the moisture it recently received, Gilpin said. Some wheat in western Kansas is too far gone for the recent rains to do any good, but in the central part of the state the wheat is going to benefit from this moisture.

A year ago, Kansas farmers hauled in 246.4 million bushels, the smallest harvest in 30 years and far short of the 328 million bushels the state has averaged in the past decade.

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.

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.

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