WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Participants in the annual Kansas wheat quality tour estimated Thursday that the state will harvest 313 million bushels of winter wheat in a season marked by relentless drought in western counties and late spring freezes.
Their forecast, announced at the Kansas the Kansas City Board of Trade, also pegged average yields in the state at slightly above 41 bushels per acre.
About 80 people fanned out in 20 cars across the state this week, making 570 stops at wheat fields during a three-day tour. They encountered weather as extreme as the conditions they found the crop out in the fields. The tour began in balmy temperatures in Manhattan, encountered pouring rain in south-central Kansas and ended in a snowstorm by the time the group reached Kansas City.
"Some of the weirdest weather I have ever seen in the last three days," said Aaron Harries, director of marketing for the industry group, Kansas Wheat.
This year's estimate is substantially down from the 382.2 million bushels cut last year. But it is still better than the 276.5 million bushels harvested during drought-plagued 2011.
Kansas this year has two very different winter wheat crops — divided by a north-west line that runs roughly from Hays to Dodge City, Harries said.
West of that line there is almost a complete absence of both topsoil and subsoil moisture. The two tiers of extreme western Kansas counties are a "borderline disaster" with terribly thin stands and some fields already completely brown.
"The general feeling is that the bad parts are worse than we expected," Harries said. "It is clearly two crops and I think most of us underestimated how bad it was in western Kansas."
Dalton Henry, director of governmental affairs for Kansas Wheat, said farmers told them that crop insurance adjusters have already been out there writing off fields in western Kansas.
Wheat fields east of Garden City were greening up more, but probes stuck into the ground showed those fields were still lacking soil moisture.
By contrast, wheat crops in south-central Kansas looked good and fields were well saturated with sufficient moisture. The tour group encountered water standing in fields in parts of central and east-central Kansas. They drove through a snowstorm around Hillsboro in northeast Kansas.
"Someone reminded us on the tour that 27 percent of the (wheat) crop is grown in south-central Kansas on average — and that is where the wheat looks the best right now," Harries said.
While the late spring freezes did do some obvious damage that was mostly superficial because the crop is so far behind that the wheat heads had not yet emerged.
"A lot can happen between now and harvest — that is particularly true this year because the crop is so far behind," Harries said.
If May temperatures get into the 80s and 90s this winter wheat crop in Kansas is going to be in big trouble, he said. Farmers here need a cool, wet May to finish out the crop.
The start of this year's winter wheat harvest probably some 40 days away.