Possible Bumper Wheat Crop Raises Quality Concerns in Kansas

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Heavy rain has primed America’s bread basket for a record wheat yield, even as it raises concerns about crop quality.

That’s the big takeaway from traders and analysts trekking across Kansas this week for the Wheat Quality Council’s annual crop tour. In many fields, wheat that was severely drought-stressed not long ago now appears “lush and succulent,” according to council Executive Vice President Dave Green. “The wheat was so soft it actually squeaked as you were walking on it.”

Winter wheat, which is used to make bread and flour and represents the biggest class of the grain grown in the U.S., is expected to yield 58.1 bushels per acre when it’s harvested next month, according to crop tour participants. That would surpass a record 57 bushels per acre achieved five years ago and would far exceed the current U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate of 48 bushels per acre.

Possible Bumper Wheat Crop Raises Quality Concerns in Kansas

But experts warn that heavy rain is a double-edged sword. Downpours and temperatures in the 80s Fahrenheit (27 Celsius) create a “perfect environment” for a fungal disease known as leaf rust, said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations at the Kansas Wheat Commission. “Quality concerns start entering the mind if we are going to have this kind of weather pattern up until harvest,” he said.

In addition, “a high yield typically means it is a lower-protein crop” because the plant used up so much protein in the growing process, according to Evan Backhus, commodities manager at Russell, Kansas-based PureField Ingredients, which makes wheat protein for the baking, pet food and alternative-meat industries. “It’s not good for us.”

Josh Longtin, a grain merchandiser at Miller Milling Co. in Minnesota, predicts the actual yield will end up about 52 bushels per acre “by the time everything is in the bins.”

The price of hard winter wheat has soared 41% in the past 12 months but tumbled by about 4% so far this week due to the better crop weather. Gains during the planting season prompted growers to “go for it” and aggressively invest in their wheat crops, according to Kansas Wheat Commission Chief Executive Justin Gilpin.

Another factor in the outlook for this year’s harvest boils down to genetics and the development over the past 10 years of wheat varieties with higher yield potential. “It’s a success story,” Gilpin said.

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