MANHATTAN, KANSAS, U.S. — During a day-long spot-check of 240 central and northern Kansas wheat fields, scouts on Tuesday braved cold, wet and muddy conditions to find hard winter wheat behind normal pace, but growing drought- and disease-free with the potential for higher yields and lower proteins in 2019.

Scouting teams comprised of wheat industry professionals spanning the entire supply chain, plus government, academic and media representatives, departed Manhattan, Kansas, U.S., before dawn Tuesday for Day 1 of Wheat Quality Council’s annual Hard Winter Wheat Tour. Teams of three or four scouts traveled southwest, west or northwest along one of five color-coded routes through the Southern Plains. One route extended further north for a five-county peek at Nebraska winter wheat.

General findings echoed in reports from many teams were that soil moisture was plentiful, sometimes bordering on surplus just west of Manhattan, but fields grew increasingly dry as scouts proceeded west.

“The thing is we’re really drying out on the surface, but the upside of all that moisture we had last fall is, profile-moisture-wise, we’re sitting in really good shape,” said Lucas Haag, the Northwest agronomist at Kansas State University's Northwest Research — Extension Center in Colby, Kansas, U.S.

Stopping at least once per county, typically more often, the wheat enthusiasts examined unfenced wheat fields using multiple measurements of wheat height and tiller count, along with ratings of growth stage, disease presence, soil moisture and wheat stands. Using formulas devised by the National Agricultural Statistics Service arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a bushel-per-acre yield estimate for each field was noted and later used to calculate a one-day yield average for each vehicle.

At the evening meeting in Colby, estimates from 20 teams were combined and averaged to determine a Day 1 total estimated yield of 46.9 bushels per acre,  up 23% from the 2018 Day 1 yield estimate of 38.2 bushels per acre, and up 18% compared with 39.5 bushels per acre as the average Day 1 estimates over the past five tours. Tour participants checked 77 fewer wheat fields than Day 1 2018, a 24% decrease linked to fewer participants operating under more harsh conditions, and 40 fewer fields than the 2014-18 Day 1 average of 280 fields, a 14% decrease.

Nebraska wheat potential was calculated separately resulting in a 44-bushel-per-acre estimate. Separate measurements of Colorado wheat determined a yield estimate of 46.5 bushels per acre.

Comparing the Kansas estimate to Day 1 totals of yesteryear was a reminder that the wheat tour is simply a first look at the developing crop, which could be beset by several potential hurdles, said Aaron Harries, vice-president of research and development at Kansas Wheat and the evening’s master of ceremonies.

“This is still a little bit under 2016, which was a good year,” he said. “But look on down that list. In 2012 the average was 53.4 and 2012 ended up being a bomb, so as we’ve said before, a lot will happen to this wheat crop between now and harvest, especially since this wheat crop is behind in a lot of areas.”

Seventeen teams of three to five scouts were scheduled to decamp from Colby early Wednesday and follow one of six routes south and then east across southcentral Kansas, stopping periodically to measure wheat using the same methods and formulas, which vary slightly from the western, central and eastern thirds of Kansas. For a second year, one route was set to cover four counties in Kansas’s southwest corner known for the prevalence of hard white winter wheat. Additionally, one route was set to scout fields in a five-county span of northern Oklahoma.

Wide variances in planting dates due to a delayed fall row crop harvest have left the 2019 hard winter wheat crop “all over the board,” said Haag, an assistant professor at Kansas State University. Wheat west of Colby “generally stayed dryer last fall and the greater percentage of that wheat went in on time,” resulting in the best wheat conditions in Kansas along Highway 27 from Sharon Springs to Johnson, Kansas, U.S., he said. Wheat east of Hoxie, Kansas, U.S., “stayed wetter last fall and a lot of that wheat was delayed for two reasons. First of all as you move further east, you’ll notice more and more of that wheat rotationally goes in after soybeans; soybean harvest was delayed, thus wheat planting was delayed. So that’s really driving the challenges we’re seeing east of here in terms of development, lack of fall tillering, and that’s certainly going to impact from a yield potential standpoint.”

Scouts would continue to look for leaf and stripe rust, two common disease pressures that were mostly absent from wheat scouts’ findings Tuesday. But a bigger concern was wheat being developmentally behind normal pace, Haag said, “shoving the grain-fill stage further and further into the summer heat,” considered one of the biggest limitations to yield.

Taking a long view of the economics-driven struggle to maintain wheat acres, Haag predicted “for the vast majority of western Kansas, someday the wet cycle’s going to end, and we’re going to remember the rotational benefits that wheat brings to our system in terms of durable residue, which is really essential for us in our dryland cropping systems here.”

Tuesday night’s dinner and meeting were hosted by Frahm Farmland in Colby. Owner Lon Frahm and his staff offered tours of parts of their technologically advanced operations, which includes nearly 27,000 acres of irrigated corn, dryland corn, dryland wheat, sorghum and soybeans. A third of those acres are irrigated via 65 center pivots, while 18,000 Frahm acres are dryland.