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Jonathan Knutson, Forum Communications, Published July 26 2012

Did North Dakota wheat weather the drought?

LAKOTA, N.D. – Ben Handcock gazed appreciatively at the amber field of wheat near here. After a few moments he called out, “This is a good-looking field.”

Other soon-to-be-harvested wheat fields across the area also appear to have held up relatively well during widespread drought, Handcock said Thursday.

“What we saw in the fields we looked at is encouraging,” said Handcock, executive vice president of the Pierre, S.D.-based Wheat Quality Council.

His organization’s annual inspection tour of wheat fields in North Dakota, western Minnesota and northern South Dakota began Tuesday in Fargo and ended there Thursday.

About 70 people, primarily trade association leaders and representatives of millers and other companies that use wheat, participated in the tour. The 70 split into small groups that traveled eight different routes, stopping periodically to inspect fields.

North Dakota’s wheat crop draws interest because the state is the nation’s leading producer of both hard red spring wheat, which is used for bread, and durum, which goes for pasta.

Promising estimates

The area’s 2012 wheat crop started strong this spring, but has been stressed by weeks of hot, dry weather. This year’s Wheat Quality Tour found that fields, on balance, didn’t suffer as much as some producers feared.

The 2012 tour estimated that this year’s spring wheat crop will average 44.9 bushels per acre. The 2011 wheat tour estimated last year’s spring wheat crop at an average of 41.5 bushels per acre.

North Dakota’s 2011 spring wheat crop had an average yield of 30.5 bushels per acre, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said after harvest.

Spring wheat is grown across the state. Durum is raised primarily in northwest North Dakota, which was hit particularly hard by excess moisture last year.

This year, even with the drought, the durum crop looks much better.

The 2012 durum crop will yield an average of 42.4 bushels per acre, according to wheat tour estimates.

The 2011 wheat tour estimated last year’s durum crop to have an average yield of 31. 8 bushels per acre.

“So there’s a lot of improvement in durum” Handcock said.

North Dakota’s 2011 durum crop averaged 25.5 bushels per acre, USDA said after harvest.

First-hand assessment

On Thursday, Handcock led a small group that inspected spring wheat fields in Ramsey and Nelson counties in north-central North Dakota.

He bent down in the field near Lakota and took a wheat head in experienced hands. Carefully, methodically, he calculated the number of kernels.

Elsewhere in the field, three other tour participants inspected wheat plants and made their own calculations.

Handcock and the other tour participants then assembled their data to come up with a single estimate of the field’s yield.

“Wow, 66 (bushels per acre). That’s really great,” Handcock said.

He didn’t know what the field yielded in previous years, so he couldn’t put the 2012 estimate in perspective.

“But you’re always happy to see a field that looks like this one. And we’ve seen a lot of fields that look good – not all as good as this one, but good,” he said.

Normally, the wheat tour inspects fields that won’t be harvested for three or four weeks or even longer. This year, because fields were planted unusually early, the wheat harvest has begun already and will intensify over the next week.

In the past, the wheat crop sometimes deteriorated after the wheat tour was held. That’s not likely to happen this year.

“What I really like is, this close to harvest, there’s not much that can go wrong with the crop,” Handcock said.

Learning opportunity

The Wheat Quality Council seeks to improve the value of wheat for producers, millers and processors. It works with a wide range of organizations, including state universities, the American Bakers Association and USDA.

The annual Wheat Quality Tour seeks to help people throughout agriculture increase their understanding of wheat and farming in general.

This year’s participants included Mark Weber and Will Stafford.

Weber is director of the Northern Crops Institute in Fargo, which supports regional agriculture and value-added processing through educational and technical programs.

Weber, an area agriculture veteran, liked what he saw during the wheat tour.

“The fields I looked at were good,” he said.

Stafford, based in Washington, is the National Association of Wheat Growers’ government affairs representative, covering trade, transportation and financial markets policy.

“It’s great to come here and learn more about wheat,” he said. “And I enjoyed seeing wheat fields that look good.”

Jonathan Knutson writes for Agweek

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