By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter
ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- When crop scouts hit the road next week for the Wheat Quality Council's annual Hard Spring Wheat and Durum Tour, they'll take plenty of water, said tour organizer and council president Dave Green.
It's a pity they can't take enough for the wheat crop.
After a week of temperatures in the upper 90s, the spring wheat crop is showing the effects of months of drought in the Northern Plains, Green said.
"This is a crop that went bad because they just didn't get normal rains in the spring and early summer," he said. "It's struggling."
Scouts are likely to see lower yields and fewer wheat fields than normal, Green said. Many growers have abandoned acres at high rates in the western halves of South and North Dakota, where drought conditions are most severe.
In its most recent Crop Progress report, USDA estimated that 40% of the North Dakota crop is in poor-to-very poor condition and 32% in good-to-excellent condition. South Dakota's crop is in even more dire conditions -- the agency rated it 74% poor-to-very poor, with just 8% in good-to-excellent condition.
Each year on the spring wheat tour, crop scouts pack into vans and trucks and fan out onto established routes through the Northern Plains. Scouts stop and take measurements in wheat and durum fields as they go and use a formula to estimate yield. At the end of each day, each route submits its yield findings and an average yield number is announced for the day.
This year, the tour will bring along 76 attendees, mostly farmers, millers, bakers, seed company and industry representatives, as well as members of the media, Green said.
The scouts will start in Fargo, North Dakota, on Tuesday, July 25. Usually they cover western Minnesota, central North Dakota, and eastern South Dakota the first day, before ending in Bismarck, North Dakota. This year, the tour may well skip the South Dakota section, simply because so much of that region has moved away from wheat acreage and into soybeans and corn, Green said.
On Wednesday, scouts will explore western and northwestern North Dakota, skirting the borders of Montana and Canada, before ending the day in Devils Lake, North Dakota. On Thursday, the tour drives through northeastern North Dakota on its way back to Fargo.
Scouts will see not only drought-compromised fields, but also fewer fields overall, Green noted. In the driest areas in south-central and southwest North Dakota and western South Dakota, he's heard estimates of field abandonment ranging from 30% to 55%.
Those fields were likely terminated or cut for hay, a much-needed commodity for drought-stricken local ranchers, said Tim Luken, who manages Oahe Grain Corporation in Onida, South Dakota. He estimates 15% to 20% of the spring wheat in his area has been baled for hay or sprayed out.
Most of the haying is probably done, as producers aim to have green wheat for the best livestock forage, Green said. "Everyone has told us that when we get there, if we see fields turning color and still standing, they're probably going to harvest it," he said.
USDA expects a spring wheat crop of just 423 million bushels, down 21% from last year, according to the agency's Crop Production report released July 12. Harvested acreage was pegged at 10.5 million acres, a 7% decline from 2016.
Durum production is also expected to plummet 45% to 57.5 mb this year, with acreage shrinking 21% from 2016 to just 1.86 million acres.
Yields will likely be low and variable, Luken said. USDA pegged the spring wheat crop's average yield at 40.3 bushels per acre, down 6.9 bushels from last year.
Luken said he heard estimates from western South Dakota ranging from 12 to 28 bpa. In central South Dakota, he predicted some fields may brush 30 bpa, but nowhere near the 34 bpa that USDA estimated for the state's average yield, he said.
"And those are the good fields," he noted. "There are a lot more bad fields than good ones."
Green said scouts will have to take special care this year to properly calculate yields in droughty fields.
"The thing we're worried about this year is that when it's this hot and dry, sometimes kernels don't even fill," he said. "We'll be training people to see how good the pollination has been -- to be sure to peel heads open and make sure there are kernels there."
Insects and disease aren't likely to be prominent this year, both Green and Luken agreed. "It's hard to have too many insects or diseases without moisture to feed them," Luken noted.
Harvest is 5% underway in South Dakota, and the North Dakota crop was just over a quarter coloring as of July 17, according to USDA.
Although tour scouts can't measure it, all eyes will be on protein levels in the spring wheat crop, Green noted.
Two years in a row of low-protein winter wheat crops have taken a toll on the milling and baking industry, which requires protein levels around 13% to 14%. Usually these end users rely heavily on a high-protein spring wheat crop to bring protein levels up in their blends.
Protein levels in the droughty crop this year will probably be higher, but lowered quality and a smaller harvest will hurt, Green said.
"It'll be much higher in protein than normal, but not the way you like to get protein," he said. "Wheat will be shriveled and have low test weights, which tends to cause milling issues."
You can see last year's Hard Spring Wheat and Durum Tour results here: http://www.wheatqualitycouncil.org/….
Follow DTN for daily stories on the tour's findings next week.
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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