ANKENY, Iowa (DTN) -- The Wheat Quality Council's annual Hard Winter Wheat Tour returns this week with a few new twists.
Typically, the four-day tour of mostly Kansas wheat fields is held during the first week of May. But it was delayed two weeks this year to allow more time for participants to get COVID-19 vaccinations, with hopes of boosting participation. Sampling begins Tuesday, May 18, with scouts leaving Manhattan, Kansas.
As of May 12, 46 people have signed up for the 2021 tour, according to organizer Dave Green. That's about half of the number of farmers, wheat buyers, end users, agronomy specialists and others who normally participate by collecting samples during the tour.
For the first time in the tour's 40-plus year history, it will be held after the first winter wheat yield and production estimates were released by the USDA. The agency's Crop Production Report issued Wednesday projects U.S. winter wheat production at 1.28 billion bushels (bb), up 10% from 2020. Hard winter wheat production is pegged at 730.8 million bushels (mb), up 11% from last year. All winter wheat is estimated to average 52.1 bushels per acre (bpa), up 1.2 bushels from last year.
Normally tour participants scout hard red winter wheat stands and look for disease and insect pressure to give the industry an idea of what the USDA production estimates might be. This time, participants will see how accurate government projections are firsthand. Data for USDA winter wheat production surveys is collected at the beginning of the month.
"The crop is much further along now -- mostly headed out -- and tour estimates (yield and production) will be an even better indicator of where things are at," said Justin Gilpin, CEO of the Kansas Wheat Commission and tour participant. "It's an intriguing storyline with the tour."
Despite tour changes and a likely added emphasis on wheat yield and quality findings, Green said the objective of the event remains the same. It brings wheat industry officials and buyers and sellers together to network, learn how the crop is produced and see what kind of production to expect when combines roll in a few weeks.
Green believes the tour serves a vital role in the wheat industry.
"I don't think for a second that ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), Cargill and milling companies don't have a good handle on the crop, but they still want to confirm what they are hearing," said Green, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council. "There is something to be said about a public evaluation of the crop."
Green expects next year's Hard Winter Wheat tour will be held during the first week of May as in the past.
Gilpin said USDA's winter wheat production estimates "weren't a surprise" despite the wild growing season so far.
The wheat executive said much of the Central and Southern Great Plains was dry in the fall. That's where the majority of winter wheat is grown -- 24.6 million acres is expected to be harvested for grain in 2021, according to USDA data. The crop in that region also endured record-cold temperatures in February and an April freeze. Drought continues to plague some areas, though beneficial rains recently have helped.
"It's been a roller coaster ride (weather wise) with winter wheat," Gilpin said. "There's some disease pressure out there as well. It will be interesting when it is all said and done to see what the final story line is with this crop."
Read recent DTN stories about rains and freeze threats here:
Green expects tour participants to see a wide variety of crop conditions, from good areas in central and south-central Kansas to dry areas in southwest and western Kansas. A limited amount of freeze damage occurred in the state.
"This is one of those years that it will be a good crop to see because conditions will vary," Green said. "It wouldn't surprise me if yields are about average."
The following is the latest USDA winter wheat data for tour states:
--Kansas farmers planted 7.3 million acres of winter wheat, with 6.9 million projected to be harvested. The average yield is estimated at 48 bpa, up 3 bpa from last year. Production is projected at 331.2 mb.
--Oklahoma winter wheat yields this year are projected to average 40 bpa, which is the same as 2020. Production is expected to increase by 4 mb to 108 mb due to an increase in harvested acres from 2.6 to 2.7 million acres.
--Nebraska farmers planted 900,000 acres of winter wheat, with 780,000 projected to be harvested. The average yield is estimated at 47 bpa, up 6 bpa from last year. Production is estimated at 36.7 mb.
DTN Lead Analyst Todd Hultman said winter wheat is a resilient crop, so increases in USDA yield projections for some states isn't a surprise even though the crop endured weather extremes.
"If rains come to the Plains states as predicted next week followed by sunshine, that could really help out the crop yet," Hultman said.
Tour participants will predominantly scout hundreds of fields in Kansas, which has the most wheat acres. A few fields in northern Oklahoma and Nebraska will be assessed.
Every year the same six tour routes and crop assessment procedures are followed for consistency. Participants are assigned different routes and make random stops in fields about every 10 to 15 miles. Each vehicle on the tour makes 12 to 15 stops each day. At the end of each day, yield estimates are tallied.
"We try to do as good as job as possible describing the crop," Green said. "We use the same wheat yield formula and compare numbers to get a feel if the crop is better or worse than previous years."
On Monday evening, participants gather in Manhattan, Kansas, and are trained to measure wheat yield potential and scout for disease, insects and freeze damage. On Tuesday, they head out to explore northwest and north-central Kansas, with one route hitting Nebraska's southern counties. The day ends in Colby, Kansas.
On Wednesday, scouts check out fields in southwest and south-central Kansas, with one route traveling through northern Oklahoma. The day ends in Wichita, Kansas. The tour ends on Thursday after scouting fields in southeast Kansas and revealing final statewide yield estimates.
Media outlets including DTN will participate. Look for DTN tour stories on www.dtnpf.com featuring yield estimates and observations on the evenings of May 18-20.
Matthew Wilde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @progressivwilde
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