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North Dakota crop tour casts doubt on forecast for record US spring wheat

Wheat grows in a field near wind turbines in Hays, Kansas. Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker.

Surveys of crops in the U.S. and Canada are producing fresh insight into the condition of wheat and canola, and providing evidence that there may be surprises in store for this season.

Early results from the North Dakota leg of a crop tour organized by the Wheat Quality Council have cast doubt on whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture's forecast for an all-time high national spring wheat yield will actually prevail.

The tour is one of several such events in which participants - including millers, bakers, traders and the odd journalist - travel across rural areas, stopping to look at crops in hundreds of fields and measure plant development. Wheat yields averaged 38.9 bushels an acre in the 135 fields sampled Tuesday, July 24, between Fargo and Bismarck. That's up from 37.9 bushels on the same day last year, but below the five-year average of 44.7 bushels.

"It feels like it's much more average or above-average than it is a record, so far,'' said Dave Green, the Kansas-based executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council. "Either we're going to see a continuation of this tomorrow where there has been some heat damage, or the northern half of the state is much better than the southern half and maybe we'll get back on track for a big crop.''

Still, samples taken in wheat fields in western areas show a noticeable improvement from last year, when the area was riddled with bone-dry fields amid a prolonged drought.Jim Bahm expects this season will be in stark contrast to 2017. The farmer's spring-wheat fields near New Salem in southwest North Dakota saw less than a half an inch of rain from June through mid-July last year and a paltry yield of 17 bushels an acre.

This year, he's seen almost a foot of rain in the same period and expects closer to a 45 bushels. His canola crop looks good, too, and his oats are looking "tremendous'' compared with last season, he said in an interview near Bismarck.

The tour's several dozen participants will are heading toward Devils Lake, N.D., on Wednesday.

On the Grain World crop tour organized by FarmLink, fields in west-central Saskatchewan offered a glimpse at just how varied Canada's crops are this year.

"It's fried off from too much heat," farmer Leon Leyen said of his spring wheat crop, which he expects will yield about 10 bushels per acre on his farm an hour south of the city of Swift Current. It didn't rain for more than a month after Leyen sowed his fields and the crop barely grazes his kneecap.

Huge swaths of the nation's Prairies have received less than 85 percent of average precipitation and fields in some areas that missed timely rains have fields of stunted grain. On one side of Church Road north of Stewart Valley, Saskatchewan, green kernels of durum wheat were found to be about half the normal size, emerging thin and sparse from the cracked, dry soil.

But on the other side of the same road is a green canola field, lush and teeming with pods that stands to yield 33 percent more than the year before.

There's a lot of variability as some Canadian fields received timely rain while others didn't, said Neil Townsend, a senior market analyst with Winnipeg, Manitoba-based FarmLink. While one group of crop scouts on the tour in southwestern Saskatchewan found spring-wheat yields as low as 20 bushels an acre, others in western Manitoba measured nearly 77 bushels. Other legs of the tour will travel through Manitoba and Alberta.

Overall, Canadian wheat yields so far appear in line with long-term averages, while canola yields may surprise to the upside, Townsend said.There's bright spots even on Leyen's farm. Since his acreage spans over 18 miles east to west, his chickpeas and lentils appear to be in good shape and his durum fields might yield 40 bushels an acre."You drive a mile and it's different," said farmer Shawn Fraser, who grows about 2,000 acres of durum and 400 acres of spring wheat southeast of Swift Current. "There's been very spotty moisture this year."

This article was written by Megan Durisin and Jen Skerritt, a reporter for The Washington Post.