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Wheat crop looks good, but no records

A negative local wheat basis looms over harvest in the mid-Atlantic.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

June 10, 2024

7 Min Read
Alyssa Koehler Betts, University of Delaware plant pathologist
CHECKING FOR DISEASE: Alyssa Koehler Betts, plant pathologist with the University of Delaware, points to a wheat head with suspected fusarium head blight. Also known as head scab, the disease made a comeback this year on the Eastern Shore, but most disease was limited. Chris Torres

At a Glance

  • Wheat yields are averaging 100 bushels an acre.
  • Head scab has been seen, but it is not as severe as past years.
  • Local basis is as low as minus 95 cents.

Barring any late-season sprouting or storm damage, last week’s winter wheat tour across the mid-Atlantic showed a crop that will once again fill grain bins.

“In general, I’d guess that 80- to 100-bushel average will catch most of the shore wheat fields,” says Leland Sproull, owner of Leland Commodities Services in Milton, Del., who led a tour of 10 fields in Delaware and Maryland. “There will be a few outlying fields yielding 120 to 140 bushels per acre, but this was not the norm based on our assessment.”

Alyssa Koehler Betts, plant pathologist with the University of Delaware, says fusarium head blight, or head scab, made a comeback this year on the shore after a relatively quiet two years of little to no head scab found.

High levels of head scab can lead to high levels of DON, or vomitoxin, in harvested wheat. DON is a naturally occurring mycotoxin that is a byproduct of head scab, and producers can get docked at an elevator for high levels of it in their wheat loads.

Much of the head scab found was generally limited to one or two wheat heads on a plant, which Koehler Betts says is a result of producers using head scab-resistant varieties and putting on a timely fungicide.

“We have a lot of folks who are trying to combine that resistance,” she says. “We have that partial resistance for wheat and then that well-timed fungicide application to kind of bring those both together. It still may not get 100% coverage when we have really conducive years for fusarium. That’s when we can still see a few escapes out there in the field.”

Chris Torres - RC Willin, owner of Willin Farms LLC in Seaford, Delaware and Dale Morris of Helena Ag.

Timely fungicide applications also prevented other diseases from taking hold.

“We had some stripe rust that came in,” Koehler Betts says. “It started to move into our area as our wheat was approaching flowering. With that one, it kind of timed where folks were planning to put a fungicide out for fusarium. A lot of that stripe rust was controlled if they had something that was susceptible. We had a little bit of common rust around, but it kind of moved in late enough that it wasn’t an economic concern for this season.”

Justin Meyers of Meyers Grain led a tour of several fields in Franklin County, Pa.

“All in all, it looked pretty good,” he says. “Yields were good. Not a lot of disease or insect problems.”

Yield estimates ranged from 70 bushels in one field to 170 bushels in another field that was spoon-fed nutrients. But most fields will likely produce about 100 bushels an acre, right around last year’s production.

Alyssa Koehler Betts - A close up of a wheat plant with fusarium head blight

Del Voight, Penn State Extension educator, led a tour of fields in Berks, Lancaster and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania.

“For our area, yields are looking average to above average,” he says. “There is a low incidence of scab that we did not see any of last year. Pest wise, some wheat aphids, cereal leaf beetle and a fair amount of glume blotch.

‘We viewed low to moderate levels of head scab. Most fields with about 7% infection. Yields will be very close to last year or normal, ranging from 80 to 130 bushels per acre. A lot can happen from now to harvest. I recall a hailstorm one year, and I estimated 90% loss in many fields, so hopefully this won't happen.”

George Mielke, co-owner of Trenton Mill Farms, led a tour of nine fields in Baltimore, Carroll and Frederick counties in Maryland.

“We saw less than 1% scab in fields, which is good,” he says. “Populations are strong. There is a good chance for a productive year. We think it’s pretty normal right now. Many producers will harvest wheat at 18% to 20% and then dry it. So, third week of June, last week, harvest will start.”

But while bins may get full, it likely won’t fill farmers’ pockets with cash, especially those who didn’t forward-contract this year’s new crop.

“We are talking about between 60 and 80 cents basis depression,” Sproull says. “I’ve been trading the shore wheat since 1997. I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”

Elevators up and down the East Coast are struggling to unload last year’s winter wheat crop, driving basis way down. The latest USDA grain bid reports from Pennsylvania and Maryland show basis as low as minus 95 cents a bushel for new-crop wheat. Basis is usually 60 to 80 cents positive.

At Trenton Mill Farms’ two locations in Maryland, the grain bins would typically be empty this time of year, Mielke says. Not this year. “We still have 75,000 bushels we’ve carried from last year to this year,” he says.

Same goes for Larry and Justin Meyers, who typically take between 700,000 and 800,000 bushels of wheat at harvest. They still have 130,000 bushels of leftover old crop.

Del Voight - Two people performing a wheat check on a plant

Why the crop glut? Sproull explains.

“Last year, at about this time, we started harvesting wheat here on the shore, and we identified that we had some low falling numbers,” he says. “As a result, the flower mills reacted to the quality we were dealing with … and they went out West and bought milling wheat via rail. As it turns out the crop wasn’t as bad as we anticipated, as the early indications showed. As a result, we had twice as much wheat moving into Pennsylvania as we should have.”

Another big crop this year may keep basis low through the end of the year and into next year, which Sproull believes may drive some growers to switch to another crop in the rotation. Mielke agrees.

“Guys are not very happy,” he says. “I think there is an acreage reduction this year. It’s too expensive of a crop for the return we’re seeing.”

Do your own yield check

If you want to calculate your own wheat yields, it’ll take a little bit of time and some math, but it’s not impossible.

Voight says he uses a method developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that calculates the number of heads per foot in a row; average number of kernels per head; and then dividing by the row space.

Here’s the step-by-step process:

  1. Count number of heads per foot in five different areas of a field, then calculate the average.

  2. Average the number of kernels per head from at least five heads in each site. This involves multiplying the number of spikelets per head by the number of kernels per spikelet.

  3. Measure the distance in inches between the rows.

The formula is number of heads per foot multiplied by number of kernels per head, divided by row space and multiplying by 0.48. This should give you an average yield in bushels.

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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