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Published July 25, 2013, 04:19 PM

Annual wheat tour finds improvement in crop

The Wheat Council's annual wheat tour saw a beautiful, essentially disease-free crop on its 472 stops in North Dakota, northern South Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

STARKWEATHER, N.D. — Dave Green stood in a field of wheat. Dew clung to the thigh-high plants, and mosquitoes swarmed in the still, early morning air.

What he saw in the field was mostly encouraging. The wheat, though green as cabbage and weeks from harvest, was thriving.

“I’ve seen a lot of above-average wheat the past two days,” said Green, director of quality control and laboratory services for ADM Milling Co. in Overland Park, Kan.

Green took part in the Wheat Quality Council’s annual inspection tour of wheat fields in North Dakota, northern South Dakota and northwest Minnesota. A record 75 people, primarily government statisticians and representatives of millers and other companies involved in the wheat industry, participated in the tour. It began July 23 in Fargo, N.D., and ended there July 25.

The 75 participants split into small groups that studied wheat fields in different parts of the three-state area. Agweek tagged along on the morning of July 25 with a group led by Green while it examined fields north of Devils Lake, N.D.

Overall, the tour “had a tough time finding any poor wheat fields,” Ben Handcock, president of the Brighton, Colo.-based Wheat Quality Council, said on the afternoon of July 25.

“Fields were disease-free, and farmers did a good job keeping them free of weeds, too,” he said.

Estimated yield holds even

The tour estimated the region’s overall 2013 wheat yield at 44.9 bushels per acre, the same as what the 2012 tour estimated for last year’s crop.

Last year’s crop, however, was planted unusually early and was nearly ready to harvest when the 2012 inspection tour was conducted.

In contrast, this year’s cool, wet spring prevented some fields from being planted and caused many other fields to be planted later than usual. As a result, the wheat crop isn’t as advanced as it normally is.

“That’s the only concern at this point,” Handcock said.

While warm temperatures in July helped wheat catch up after the late spring, too much heat in the next few weeks would damage the crop, he said.

“There’s still a ways to go before this crop is harvested. Temperatures in the 90s would hurt,” he said.

“I think this is a really nice wheat crop. It’s got one major problem — too late. If the weather stays like it is right now — low 80s, maybe not getting to 80 every once in awhile — it’ll probably be fine. But if it gets to 90 to 95 degrees when that stuff’s trying to fill, then we might have issues with test weights … But man it is a beautiful crop right now — almost no disease in it.”

Wheat remains important

Wheat has been losing ground, literally, to other crops in recent years in the Upper Midwest. Attractive corn and soybean prices, along with new, improved corn varieties, have led farmers to plant more of those crops and less wheat.

Wheat and barley have become far less popular with farmers in the Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, Green noted.

Still, wheat is well suited to the soil and climate of North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, and many farmers continue to grow it.

North Dakota farmers planted an estimated 5.8 million acres of spring wheat this year, compared with 3.9 million acres of corn and 4.4 million acres of soybeans, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota farmers planted an estimated 1.1 million acres of spring wheat, most of it in the northwest part of the state.

Spring wheat grown in this region is known for its high-protein content. It’s used primarily for bread dough and to blend with other, lower-protein wheat.

A ‘training exercise’

This was the 33rd year that Green participated in the Wheat Quality Council inspection tour. The fields he saw this year are promising, he said.

“The question is, how many acres didn’t get planted,” he said.

The group led by Green passed a number of unplanted fields north of Devils Lake.

Green called the inspection tour “a training exercise” that helps participants, particularly ones new to wheat, learn more about the crop.

The organization has been doing the spring wheat tour annually since 1992. This year, the tour matched the 2001 record of 472 stops.

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