KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, U.S. — With expectations that more plentiful rains would mean higher winter wheat yields, 92 crop scouts fanned out to 284 locations in north-western Kansas on May 5, the first day of the Hard Red Winter Wheat Quality Tour, sponsored by the Wheat Quality Council.

But the average yield estimate at the end of the day was 34.3 bushels an acre,  slightly lower than last year’s first-day average of 34.7 bushels an acre and the lowest first-day average since 2001, when the average was 32.6 bushels an acre. Tour participants experienced rain and ankle-deep mud, as well as hard, dry soil, as they entered wheat fields from near Manhattan to Colby to make their assessments of crop conditions and size.

The fact that the wheat tour’s initial yield projection was even lower than last year’s was concerning because the 2014 wheat harvest in Kansas was the smallest in 30 years, a victim of major drought across much of the state, especially in western areas.

Among reasons cited for the lower-than-expected first-day yield estimate included evidence of stripe rust, a fungal disease that flourishes in overly wet conditions, as well as winter kill, infestations of aphids and leftover drought stress.

“Our wheat’s really been through a lot this growing season,” said Jeanne Falk Jones, a Kansas State extension specialist. “Variability is the name of the game now.”

Some crop observers contended this year’s heavier rains may yet translate to better yields, especially in the eastern half of the state. Crop conditions have shown an improvement compared with last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said, with 27% of the Kansas crop rated good to excellent as of May 3, up from 17% a year ago.

Wheat tour participants will continue to gather crop information and make a daily yield estimate from Wichita before working their way east to Kansas City by early afternoon on May 7.

At a meeting of participants and the media hosted by Sosland Publishing, the crop tour will conclude with its final estimate of average yield and a Kansas production forecast.