WICHITA, Kan. (DTN) -- The southwest corner of Kansas on Wednesday was like a land time forgot. Despite it being a modestly warm day in late spring, there was no fieldwork underway and few acres, if any, had been planted with fall crops. The wheat, sown last fall, hovered frozen between life and death, seemingly too small and sparse to make a crop, but on ground too dry to use for anything else. It was a world on pause, a region waiting for rain.
Rain, where it had come and where it hadn't, said much about what there was to see Wednesday, the second day of the Wheat Quality Council's Hard Winter Wheat Tour throughout Kansas. DTN is participating in the tour.
The second day's results didn't do much to change the theme of the first, which had shown depressed yield outlooks for a drought-ravaged Kansas wheat crop in the north-central and northwest regions of the state.
Tour attendees were braced for even worse results from Wednesday's routes, which led cars from the northwest, Colby, to the south, and then east to Wichita.
The assumption of bad things to come proved accurate. The day's yield average was 27.5 bushels per acre (bpa), from 105 samplers and 27 cars checking 276 fields.
"What stands out the most is the amount of abandonment we'll see in west-central and southwest Kansas," said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer with Kansas Wheat. "It was evident just driving south from Colby down to Garden City the amount of fields you saw. About 50% of that wheat isn't going to be harvested."
That 27.5 bpa yield is a 26% drop from the calculated yield estimate from a year ago with cars traveling the same route. Last year's average was 37 bpa in what was still a drought-strained year.
Nowhere was the devastation more obvious than in the stark nothingness of the southwest corner of Kansas, where it looked like the fall harvest could have been a week ago. Many fields were still covered in stalks, and a few even still clung to unharvested milo. No work had been done to prepare for a fall crop as farmers seemingly waited on a rain to get into the field.
The rain hasn't come.
Much of the wheat crop planted last fall appeared in dire shape, that is if it hadn't already been destroyed. A lot of it had indeed been abandoned, yellowing into a bright scar where vibrant green wheat should be charging toward maturity. Everything else either looked rough enough to prompt questions about why it was being allowed to hang on, or was irrigated, making for a few round, gleaming beacons of green thumbing their noses at a three-year drought.
Both the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers were dusty and dry. Simply finding non-irrigated fields that seemed likely to be harvested proved difficult, and estimates of abandonment topped 50%.
Why not kill off clearly stressed wheat that will struggle to make even 10 bpa? The suspected logic amounts to refusing to replace one round of hopeless seed with another.
"What else are you going to do?" asked Dave Green, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council. "If there was rain coming, you could spray it and plant milo, but there's not. ... We called it bad last year. This is way past that. Last year was bad. This is really bad."
But it wasn't all that horrible as the tour turned back east, toward Wichita. Signs of drought were still common, but fields showed stronger stands and taller plants. It looked like a crop that might be harvested.
"Hey," Green said, smiling wide as he waded into one field in Meade County, Kansas, "this is the best-looking 18-bushel wheat field I've ever seen!"
Fields farther east showed even greater promise, getting yield estimates into the 40s and, in very limited cases, the 50s and low 60s, but were still interspersed with patches that had been terminated or appeared on the verge of being terminated.
Despite the improved fields nearer Wichita, Kansas still may be on the precipice of a historically bad wheat harvest. The state hasn't brought in less than 200,000,000 bushels in a harvest since 1963. USDA estimated Friday the state would harvest 191,400,000 bushels, and the first two days of the yield tour haven't done anything to show that estimate to be wildly inaccurate. After two days of scouting, the tour's average yield estimate is 28.7 bpa, right on par with the USDA's estimate of 29 bpa.
"It doesn't surprise me you might see one or two fields that might have been fallow fields or caught a rain or a snow that were in that higher range," Gilpin said. "But it was evident all the way from Garden City to Wichita all the drought stress that was on those plants. The tiller count is low. The base of the plant clearly has been stressed, not only from the drought but high temperatures we received in early May. That, all combined, is really going to limit the yield potential."
Wednesday marked the last full day for the event. Teams will scout one more route Thursday morning as they head back to the tour's starting point, Manhattan, before a wrap-up meeting to announce the tour's ultimate statewide prediction.
Joel Reichenberger can be reached at Joel.Reichenberger@dtn.com
Follow him on Twitter @JReichPF
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