Winter Wheat Tour Kicks Off in Kansas

Crop Scouts Will Put Their Boots in Kansas Wheat Fields This Week

Jason Jenkins
By  Jason Jenkins , DTN Crops Editor
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Participants in the 2024 Hard Winter Wheat Tour will traverse the state of Kansas this week following six predetermined routes, stopping to assess the wheat crop every 10 to 15 miles. (Map courtesy of Wheat Quality Council)

MANHATTAN, Kan. (DTN) -- After nationwide drought led to the highest winter wheat abandonment rate in more than a century, the crop overall is in much better condition this year. How much better will be estimated this week as the Wheat Quality Council hosts its 2024 Hard Winter Wheat Tour in Kansas, the nation's largest producer of the crop.

Nearly 75 participants are taking part in this year's event, said Dave Green, Wheat Quality Council executive vice president and tour organizer. Collectively, the group will travel thousands of miles across Kansas and some into southern Nebraska and northern Oklahoma. Along the way, they will stop at hundreds of wheatfields and assess the crop's condition and quality, estimating overall yield potential while noting the presence and severity of insects and diseases.

"We had record participation last year as so many folks wanted to see firsthand just how bad the crop had suffered due to the drought," Green said. "This year, we're back to about average with folks representing millers, bakers, grain companies, plant breeders, commodity organizations, universities, government agencies and media. We'll also have some farmers with us for the duration of the tour, which makes it real fun."

The group assembled Monday, May 13, in Manhattan, Kansas, where each participant learned how to calculate yield estimates. Then on Tuesday, they will hit the road and head west to Colby, Kansas, stopping every 10 to 15 miles to assess winter wheatfields along six predetermined routes that are followed year after year.

The tour continues Wednesday, venturing along routes that take participants south before heading back east and concluding in Wichita, Kansas. On Thursday, the tour concludes back in Manhattan where the data from all three days will be combined to arrive at an average yield for the tour.


In 2023, USDA estimated nearly 33% of acres planted to winter wheat nationwide were not harvested -- the highest abandonment rate since 1917. In Kansas, about 29% of acreage wasn't harvested.

According to DTN Lead Analyst Todd Hultman, the U.S. winter wheat crop is in good shape this year -- at least on paper.

"USDA's current 50% good-to-excellent rating is the best in three years," he said. "However, the state with the highest poor to very-poor rating is Kansas at 33%. Once again, crop conditions in central and western Kansas are suspected, and the Wheat Quality Council's Winter Wheat Tour will arrive in time to shed light."

The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Crop Progress and Condition Report released May 6 estimated 29% of the Kansas winter wheat crop was in good condition, up 1% from the previous week. NASS rated the remainder of the crop as 12% very poor, 21% poor, 35% fair and 3% excellent.

An estimated 93% of Kansas winter wheat was jointed, well ahead of 73% at this time last year and 13% ahead of the five-year average. About 54% of winter wheat was headed, which was 28% ahead of 2023 and 21% ahead of the five-year average.

Based on May 1 conditions, Kansas's 2024 winter wheat crop is forecast at 268 million bushels, up 33% from last year's crop, according to NASS. Average yield is forecast at 38 bushels per acre, up three bushels from last year. Acreage to be harvested for grain is estimated at 7.05 million acres, up 1.30 million acres from last year. This would be 92% of the planted acres.

Hultman noted that even during extreme drought in 2023, Kansas still led the nation with 201.25 million bushels of winter wheat production. The USDA Crop Production report released May 10 estimated this year's production at 267.90 million bushels -- nearly a 25% increase.

"Even so, a closer look will be helpful," Hultman said. "Recent rains offered crops in southwestern Kansas limited help. By the time the tour starts, it will be interesting to see how stressed crops currently look and over how big of a region."

The U.S. Drought Monitor map released May 9 showed nearly half of Kansas was experiencing moderate drought (48.55%), but no extreme or exceptional drought conditions were present. This is in stark contrast to last year when extreme and exceptional drought covered almost two-thirds of the state (64.44%).

DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick said weather patterns over Kansas have been so variable throughout the spring it should make for some very interesting findings during the winter wheat tour.

"The winter weather was actually quite good for most of the state," he said. "An active El Nino pattern supplied some decent moisture to most areas, enough for them to build in some subsoil moisture. But late winter and especially spring have been very hit and miss."

Baranick explained while the storm track stayed active this spring, it moved either over or north of Kansas. When that occurs, precipitation is usually sparser and comes with thunderstorms instead of widespread moderate rainfall.

"With how active it has been, that has meant very dry conditions across the west and much wetter conditions in the east," he said "Southwestern areas have been especially hurt by the storm track, leaving them dry. Breezy winds and above-normal temperatures have led to topsoils drying out and soil moisture declines."

In its May 6 report, USDA rated Kansas topsoil moisture supplies as 24% very short, 25% short, 40% adequate and 11% surplus. Subsoil moisture supplies were rated 23% very short, 33% short, 39% adequate and 5% surplus.

Last year, the weighted average yield from the Wheat Quality Council's 2023 Hard Winter Wheat Tour was 30.0 bushels per acre (bpa). In its 2023 Crop Production Summary released in January, USDA estimated yield in Kansas at 35 bpa and the national yield at 50.6 bpa for winter wheat.

While there is more optimism, Green said there are also feelings of "what could have been" for this year's crop.

"Very few times in a decade do we have fall weather as good as we had last year coming off of a drought," he said. "It got planted on time. The rains started coming, and it came up and really took off. Some even worried it grew too fast and too big, but we went into winter dormancy with what was really set up to be a great crop.

"But then, that all went away in the spring when the rains started missing," he continued. "We'll see this week just how far downhill things went."

DTN Crops Editor Jason Jenkins is participating in this year's winter wheat tour in Kansas. Look for daily updates and final yield estimates on and on social platform X.

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Jason Jenkins