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Participants on the Wheat Quality Council tour get a lesson in estimating wheat yields on July 23, 2018, at the North Dakota State University Agronomy Seed Farm in Casselton, N.D. (Jenny Schlecht/Forum News Service)

Not 'a big whopper' in area wheat: Annual tour indicates no bumper this year

FARGO — Many Upper Midwest wheat farmers have been hoping that good-looking wheat fields will produce record or near-record yields this year. The results of a widely watched annual tour indicate that won't happen.

Spring wheat will yield an average of 41.1 bushels per acre this year, up from 38.1 bushels per acre in drought-ravaged 2017 but down substantially from estimated per-acre yields in 2012 to 2016, including the record 49.9 bushels per acre in 2014, according to results of the Wheat Quality Council's hard red spring wheat and durum tour.

Durum will yield an estimated 39.3 bushels per acre, down slightly from 39.7 bushels per acre in 2017 and the record 45.4 bushels per acre in 2016, tour results showed.

"We thought this was a big whopper. I don't know if the numbers will come in that way. We see problems in the crop," said Dave Green, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council.

Results of the three-day tour of 342 fields in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, which began Tuesday, July 24, were announced the afternoon of Thursday, July 26, at the Northern Crops Institute in Fargo.

Green and other participants in the tour said wheat stands in many fields appeared excellent from the road, but that problems showed up on closer inspection.

Many wheat heads were shorter than expected, some plants hadn't tillered as much as might be expected, and some kernels were relatively small, Green said.

Crop disease was a problem in places, too, he said.

"It's good to see that this year's crop is better than a year ago. But it just doesn't look as good as it appeared to be," especially since the U.S. Department of Agriculture's reports on the region's wheat crop is positive, Green said.

The tour kicked off Monday, July 23, at Casselton, N.D., with a training session where tour participants learned about North Dakota agriculture, fusarium head blight, the difference between wheat and durum and how to estimate yield.

Andrew Friskop, NDSU Extension Service plant pathologist, explained the risk for fusarium head blight, or scab, given the hot, humid conditions this year. Temperatures and humidity rose around July 4, making any wheat that was flowering at the time susceptible. He advised those on the tour to look for partially bleached heads on immature wheat and orange hues as it matures. He also explained how to describe incidence, or how often scab is found, and severity, or how bad it is.

Participants left from Fargo, N.D., on Tuesday, July 24, from Bismarck, N.D., on Wednesday, July 25, and Devils Lake, N.D., on Thursday, July 26. The 55 participants took eight routes through the region, stopping every 10 miles or so to check fields.

Green said "very seldom are we shocking" anyone with the outcome of the tour. Most grain companies have people in the state, talking to farmers and checking out the crops.

"We're not surprising anybody," he said.

Educating the industry

The tour, Green explained, started out of a need for education. It began as a field day, where new varieties and farming techniques were displayed. In the 1970s, when Russians started buying grain, the industry saw more need for learning about harvest timing, the size of the crop and quality and disease factors. That's when it changed from more of a field day to a crop scouting education, Green said.

"Years ago, we found that there was a need for people in the industry to get out and actually see the crops," he said.

The tour usually includes a large number of people from milling companies, as well as bakers, grain companies, seed companies and media. Few, Green said, have any experience in a wheat field or in North Dakota.

"These people don't know wheat from durum from barley," he said.

In 2017, the tour visited 443 spring wheat fields, estimating an average yield of 38.1 bushels per acre, and 47 durum fields, estimating 39.7 bushels per acre. A summary of the 2017 tour from Green projected that actual yields would be higher due to abandonment of acres because of drought conditions. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, average North Dakota 2017 yields for spring wheat was 41 bushels per acre and for durum was 24 bushels per acre. The NASS data shows 280,000 acres of spring wheat went unharvested in 2017, along with 55,000 acres of durum.