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VIDEO: Tour pegs above-average spring wheat crop

FARGO, N.D. — The annual spring wheat industry tour of North Dakota, northern South Dakota and northwest Minnesota shows above-average yield and better quality than some industry reports had expected.

The Wheat Quality Council's annual Spring Wheat Crop Tour pegs the hard red spring wheat yield at 45.7 bushels per acre, down from the 49.9 bushels projected in 2015 and the 48.6 bushels in 2014, but just shy of the five-year average of 45.9 bushels.

The durum wheat yield is projected at 45.4 bushels an acre. That's up 6.2 bushels from 39.2 bushels last year, and higher than any of the previous 13 years. If the tour estimates are true, durum yields could be a record high, and almost 19 percent higher than the five-year average of 38.3 bushels.

Meanwhile, hard red winter wheat is pegged at 34.7 bushels per acre — 29 percent less than last year's 49 bushels, and behind the five-year average of 47.9 bushels for the crop.

Ben Handcock, executive director of the council, at a reporting session on July 28 in Fargo, said the 45 bushel yield is a "pretty good crop in North Dakota," and he thinks there will be higher protein in the crop than there has been for several years, because that's associated with some of the drought stress that much of the crop has sustained as the grain heads were filling. "That should increase the value of this crop, especially for blending.

Protein plus

Handcock said protein premiums recently have been as high as they've been for a long time. "If I was a farmer, I'd hang onto some of this high-protein stuff because they're going to be beating your door wanting it in a few months, wanting that. Because there is no protein south of here."

Brian Walker, technical director for Miller Milling in Minneapolis, has helped organize the three-day annual tour for 22 years and said it offers another way of understanding the overall crop prospects, an understanding of disease pressure, or whether it got too little or too much moisture.

The 73 tour-goers split up into 16 cars, collecting data from dozens of fields. Some of the tour-goers commented at Thursday's final reporting about some of the flood-damaged fields in the northeast part of North Dakota, as well as the mosquito crop. It's a close-up, personal view of agriculture that many of the tour-goers -- experts in their specialized roles in it -- don't experience any other way.

But the main focus of the tour is the crop itself.

"The crop looks very good," Walker said. The crop went in early and Walker had been concerned about excessive, repeated rainfalls. "I kept thinking is it going to be flowering and the storms kept coming through," Walker said. "I think about humidity and rain and I think about fusarium head blight (scab) in the crop."

Mostly scab-free

There was some scab in the durum crop but fields in the south were farther along in their development and didn't get impacted. Some of the fields in the north showed some mild scab, but farmers have learned to take care of the disease with timely applications of fungicides. "The fields looked clean, not a lot of disease: the crop looked nice," Walker said.

Significantly, this was Handcock's last tour after 25 years. In recent years he moved to Brighton, Colo., after basing from the Pierre, S.D., area for many years. Handcock and his wife, Patsy, had become beloved by tour-goers, also leading a corresponding hard red winter tour in Kansas. Tour-goers are industry officials from all over the country and world.

About 60 to 70 percent of the tour-goers only do it once, but about 30 percent come every year. Handcock is known for his "old school" style of organizational leadership, with an upbeat, fun but not always politically correct manner. This year, most went away with a signed, T-shirts, commemorating the "Ben there, done that!" message.

"My claim to fame is that I don't know very much -- but I know everybody," Handcock joked, saying he's going to mow his local golf course for free golf as a retirement pastime.

"He's one of a kind, great for the industry," Walker said.