A record wheat crop?The annual tour of area fields shows great promise, but development is behind normal.
By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek
DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Chris Palmer bent over in the damp wheat field and quickly but carefully made his measurements. The cabbage-green plants surrounding him rustled in the cool early morning breeze.
He looked up and said, “I’m not an agronomist. But this field looks good to me.”
Palmer, a trader for the Winnipeg, Manitoba-based CWB, took part in the Wheat Quality Council’s annual inspection tour of fields in North Dakota, northern South Dakota and northwest Minnesota.
The tour confirmed what area agriculturalists already thought:
“This wheat crop has the potential to be just tremendous, if we can get it in the bin,” Ben Handcock, president of the Brighton, Colo.-based Wheat Quality Council, said this afternoon after the tour had wrapped up.
The region’s average spring wheat yield is estimated at 48.6 bushels per acre, compared with the tour’s estimate of 44.9 bushels per acre for the 2013 crop, also a good one.
This year’s estimate is the highest in the 23 years that Handcock has been involved with the tour. His organization is a coordinated effort by plant breeders, farmers and food processors to improve the quality of wheat and flour.
He stressed, however, that the 2014 crop isn’t nearly as advanced as usual, which could lead to problems later.
The tour is primarily for government statisticians and representatives of millers and other companies involved in the wheat industry. It began Jan. 21 in Fargo, N.D., and ended there today. Participants split into several groups that studied wheat fields in different parts of the three-state area. Agweek visited with Palmer this morning in a field north of Devils Lake, in north-central North Dakota.
He estimated the field could yield 50 to 55 bushels of spring wheat per acre.
Wheat, once referred to as “King Wheat” in the Upper Midwest, has become less popular in recent years. Corn and soybeans, in particular, have become more common; Palmer and the rest of his group passed corn and soybean fields north of Devils Lake that probably would have been planted to wheat a few years ago.
Even so, the soil and climate of North Dakota and western Minnesota are well-suited to wheat, and many farmers continue to plant it. North Dakota farmers planted an estimated 7.2 million acres of wheat this year, compared with 2.85 million acres of corn and 5.95 million acres of soybeans, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Heat can hurt
Wheat, a cool-season grass, generally doesn’t hold up well in heat. Area farmers want to plant the crop as early as possible, so it matures sooner and avoids late-summer heat. But this year’s wet spring delayed planting and put the wheat crop at greater risk than usual from potentially hot summer weather.
Cool conditions in June and July generally have allowed the area’s wheat crop to develop beautifully so far, however, officials say.
“There’s really a lot of good-looking wheat out there,” Handcock said.
Many of the fields visited by the annual tour have ample subsoil moisture, which would help plants overcome dry weather in the next few weeks, he and others said.
But because the overall crop was planted late, it’s two to three weeks behind its normal development, making it more vulnerable than usual to hot weather this summer and early frost this fall, he said.
Some wheat fields appear to be as much as six weeks behind their normal development, he said.
“There are fields just heading out. It’s going to be quite a while before they can be harvested,” he says.
The wheat field where Agweek talked with Palmer had headed and appeared to have plentiful subsoil moisture.
Plants in part of the field were bent over by wind; the condition, known as lodging, can cause harvest problems. Palmer said he thinks the plants will return to their normal position.
The annual wheat tour is intended, in part, to help people such as Palmer learn more about Upper Midwest wheat. He’s worked about six years for CWB, formerly known as the Canadian Wheat Board. The organization markets grains grown on the Canadian prairie.
Farmers on the Canadian prairie and in the Upper Midwest of the U.S. grow the same crops and face the same weather-related challenges, Palmer said.
“This is a great opportunity for me to learn more (about U.S. wheat production),” he said.