- Associated Press - Thursday, June 29, 2017

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - This year’s winter wheat harvest has been a mixed bag for Kansas, as farmers race to bring in the crop amid damaging spring storms that have pounded some fields with hail.

Fields around Norton and Goodland in northwest Kansas were hit by hail this week, while a “big hail event” hit last week around Garden City and Deerfield in southwest Kansas, said Justin Gilpin, chief executive for industry group Kansas Wheat.

“Farmers are getting a little bit anxious because there are some fields ready to go they haven’t been able to get into because of recent storms,” Gilpin said.

A common theme with this year’s crop has been variability, he said. Yields in Kansas have ranged from a meager 10 bushels an acre in hard-hit fields that were almost not worth cutting, to as much as 70 bushels an acre where yields were closer to normal. Hail has destroyed some crops, and some fields were so diseased by wheat streak mosaic virus that they were not harvested.

Because of those losses, Gilpin anticipates the overall size of the Kansas wheat crop may be “a little less” than the 289.8 million bushels that the U.S. Agriculture Department had forecast before the harvest began in Kansas. He noted that prices are better than last year, but “still not where we want them to be.”

Local farmers are closely watching a deepening drought in the Dakotas, where the much of the nation’s spring wheat is grown. Conditions there are pulling up the price of red winter wheat grown in Kansas.

Cash wheat prices at grain elevators around Hutchinson closed as high $3.91 per bushel on Wednesday, compared to $3.54 per bushel for the same time a year ago. Expectations are that prices could go higher, said Dan O’Brien, a Kansas State University Extension market specialist.

The break-even price for wheat is closer to $4.50 at average yields.

“We are still not covering the full economic costs, but the improvement is welcomed,” O’Brien said. “We are getting closer to doing that.”

Yields have been pretty good in south-central and central Kansas, though protein levels in the area were lower than farmers hoped to get, Gilpin said. Protein levels are higher for wheat crops being cut further west, though yields for those heat-stressed fields have not been as good.

Gilpin anticipates the state average for protein will probably be higher than last year, mostly thanks to wheat in western Kansas where protein levels have been hovering around 12 percent.

Wheat crops with protein levels of 12 percent or more fetch premium prices for farmers because that higher quality wheat is used to make bread. The protein in flour is what gives it strength when mixed with water and yeast, allowing the bread to rise better for fluffier loaves.

Plant diseases also have taken an unusually heavy toll this year, particularly the wheat streak mosaic virus that hit many fields in Hamilton, Scott and Lane counties in the west-central part of the state where a lot of fields aren’t going to harvested because the disease was so devastating.

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