Nicholas Ahrens, Product Applications Technologist, was one of four Bay State Milling employees who participated in the 2019 Hard Winter Wheat Tour from April 29 to May 2. This is his experience as a first-time wheat scout.
First Night Arriving in Manhattan, Kansas
The 2019 Winter Wheat Crop Quality Tour was my first tour with the Wheat Quality Council. This wasn’t my first trip to Kansas nor was it my first visit into a wheat field; it was however, the first time I was out actively measuring and determining the yield for each field based on bushels per acre. Going into this trip, there was a lot of anticipation of what we would see with the recent flooding just one state up in Nebraska.
On our first night in Manhattan, Kansas we had a quick dinner, gathered our yard sticks, got our route assignments and met with our drivers for the next day. As is typical, this was the first crop tour for many of the 78 volunteer scouts who gathered in Manhattan. The information came fast and was very extensive, especially for those of us who flew in that morning. The main message was that the crop was behind schedule.
It was a tale of two plantings. Kansas Winter Wheat is typically planted in late September or early October and goes through vernification (winter dormancy). This year, many farmers started in September and were able to get some wheat into the ground. Shortly after they started, the planting was halted due to heavy rains. Planting didn’t resume until November in some fields. After last year where the farmers experienced significant drought across the state, many were dealing with above average precipitation. Some parts of central Kansas experienced upwards of 10 inches of rain above average for the period between October and April.
- Kansas farmers planted the least amount of acres for wheat in the last 100 years at 7 million acres.
- In 2018, 90 percent of Kansas was in drought conditions. This year, no counties experienced drought with a few experiencing above average rainfall.
For the first day, I was lucky enough to be assigned to one of the longest routes, heading north into Nebraska. We had a goal to stop at a minimum of one field per county (15 counties) along the way to our next hotel in Colby, Kansas. Our first stop was in Clay County just east of Clay Center. The weather was overcast and drizzling. The first field was a late planted field with short stalks with just the first nod on the stem. The field was very patchy and was no-tilled with a prior planting of corn. Even though it was behind and patchy, our yield estimate for this field came to about 50 bushels per acres. The 2018 state average yield was 38 bushels per acres.
A volunteer counts stalks per foot to develop a yield estimate.
Our second stop for the day was west of Clay Center. This was a very beautiful and picturesque field. It was one of the best of the whole tour with an estimated yield of over 71 bushels per acre. This was also the field where I became the example of why flour mills have extensive cleaning houses. I have always joked that wheat coming off the fields can have almost anything in them and today I almost contributed my cell phone. After driving back and completing an extensive 15-minute search, we were on our way to Nebraska with phone in hand.
Once in Nebraska, we saw a few farms with washed out sections from the floods, but overall most of the damage was still north of us. Nebraska was also where we had our first farmer visit out in the field. This field was in Philips County, east of Norton. Here I learned that having mud boots didn’t offer enough protection for going ten feet into a very wet field. I wished I had hip waders as we might’ve well been jumping into a lake with how soaked our pants got.
After estimating over a 100 bushels per acre for this irrigated field, the farmer told us that he had planted for forage and not for seed. He seeded over 130 pounds of grain per acre. In a couple weeks he was going to lay down the field and open it up for cattle grazing. After grazing, the plan was to turn it over for 90-day corn this summer, followed by winter wheat in September. This farmer typically farms 1,000 acres for wheat, and this year based on market conditions, he decided to only plant 300 acres.
Most of what I saw was a mixed bag of great looking fields that had been planted early and rougher, patchy fields planted late in the season. However, the yields per acre are expected to be up from the prior year.
That night, we visited Frahm Farmland Inc., a 27,000-acre no-till with 8,000 acres planted with wheat, plus irrigated corn, dryland corn, sorghum and soybeans. Lon Frahm, the sixth generation owner, gave us a tour of his farm and treated us to dinner inside one of the many barns. This farm was a poster child of the new way of farming, utilizing the best of technology to increase yields and full utilization of the land. With fiber optics recently arriving into Colby, this farm was teeming with GPS precision planting and operation centers. The massive on-farm storage (2.8 million bushel storage capacity) demonstrates the greater control and flexibility these farms have for selling when the market is most beneficial for profit.
At dinner, a few local farmers commented on the economic conditions of the wheat market. One farmer stated he would need to get 70-80 bushels per acre to pull a profit at today’s wheat prices. With this in mind, some farmers are considering not spraying for diseases and may turn more fields over to forage.
On the second day, I once again got the longest route of the day, making my way south through Kansas into the panhandle of Oklahoma. We started off before 7 a.m. and didn’t stop until we made it to Oklahoma. The morning started with dense fog and frost, but by the time we made our first stop it was overcast and 64 degrees. The growth stage of the wheat had changed as much as the weather in those 200 miles. After a long drive, we were ready to get out into the fields again. Heading east across I-64 we passed many wheat fields that were headed and well into the flowering stage. Most were fenced in and had cattle grazing on them.
Once in the fields, we encountered wheat stalks over the height of our meter sticks. I had already broken my meter stick several times and it was too short to measure these stalks over 38 inches high. These fields where well on their way to being harvested in just a few weeks. The wheat was in the early flowering stages with just the tiniest of grain fill starting. Other than some weeds entering the fields, overall disease and insect infestation was very minimal. There was almost no signs of leaf rust in any fields we visited. Just as noted in southern Nebraska and Kansas overall acreage planted was down, but those that did plant had strong yield estimates.
The highlight of Oklahoma was visiting an experimental variety field from Oklahoma State University and enjoying some sugar cookies made in the shape of the state of Oklahoma out of locally-grown white wheat.
- Oklahoma projected 4.19 Million acres with a yield of 37.28 bushels per acre.
- Kansas is seeing more acres planted with cotton at 170,000 acres. The state is opening its first cotton gin.
The third and final day saw us departing out of Wichita toward our starting point in Manhattan. My car departed at 6:30 a.m. Someone must think I’m a morning person as I was assigned the earliest and longest routes of the whole tour. While every other car headed north, we went south to Wilmington.
Our first stop was at a field growing out breeder seed. This field had 13 rows side by side of different varieties. This morning was particularly cold, and the signs of a very wet spring were all around us; from flooded fields to a freight train that had derailed due to soft ground under the tracks.
Once we returned to Manhattan, we presented our days’ worth of scouting and final notes on the trip. The overall estimate from the group was 306.5 million bushels of wheat expected to be harvested in Kansas this year. Even with the lowest acres planted in 100 years, the harvest looks to be similar to recent years and up from last year’s drought.
Harvest is still weeks away, but we’re all hoping for a successful year devoid of complications. Rains are also expected to continue in the coming weeks possibly giving to higher yields, but with higher yields lower proteins are usually expected. Too much rain can drive up the incidents of diseases and pests.
- The group of 78 scouts represented: Government 9%, University 2%, Media 8%, Grain 10%, Milling 18%, Bakers 8%, Producers 10% and other 9%.
- The 2019 Hard Winter Wheat Tour had 469 field stops with an average of 47.2 bushels per acre.
- The 2019 Winter wheat crop tour wheat scouts estimated 306.5 million bushels of wheat potential for Kansas up from 277 million harvested in 2018.
After the meeting concluded, we were invited to the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center at Kansas State University. Its where one the world’s largest collections of early wheat cultivars, outside of the middle east, are housed in the seed bank and propagated for continued seed development in the onsite green houses. It was probably one of the best wheat experiences I’ve had seeing all the different shades of green and black awns. It’s so humbling to see and touch wheat and grass varieties that have been around for thousands of years and seeing the progression into the wheat we harvest and turn into bread today.