by Audrey Thomasson
LANCASTER—It is just weeks before harvest and wheat farmers like Jock Chilton of Ridgefield Farms are speculating on how good a crop their fields will produce. Grain buyers are curious, too.
Farmers planted winter wheat in October, around the first fall frost. Typically, the crop germinates and develops into young plants but then goes dormant for the winter. The return of warm weather in the spring sparks rapid growth with a harvest expected about two months later when the crop will reach a height of nearly four feet.
On May 31, a team of inspectors toured seven farms in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula in order to get a picture of the state’s yield for 2017.
In was the second year Virginia participated in the tour, hosted by Virginia Farm Bureau Federation (VFBF). Participating were representatives of Mennel Milling, Perdue Farms, commodity brokers, Virginia Grain Producers Association and Virginia Cooperative Extension.
At each farm, the group broke into teams to randomly inspect several spots in the field. At each spot, they determined the distance between rows and the number of harvestable heads along some five feet of row. Then they counted the number of kernels on at least five heads.
The results from all the selected spots were combined to calculate an estimated yield in bushels per acre.
“We’re trying to get a snapshot by surveying the crop just prior to harvest,” said Robert Harper, VFBF grain manager. “We’re gathering yield and quality information that the millers will use in planning their upcoming purchases.”
The results of the seven inspected fields showed yield potential up over last year with light to moderate disease. He noted there was a little frost damage in New Kent, but overall things looked good.
“Most fields have a good yield,” said Harper. “We were impressed with the management each producer has put into their wheat crop over the last nine months. ”
Chilton’s field was looking especially good with a thick crop and no signs of disease.
“If you can’t see the ground and can’t tell where the rows are, you have a good yield,” Chilton explained. It was a good description of his field. However, Chilton won’t be counting his bushels until the grain is harvested and weighed. He noted a late rain with no wind and few sunny days could damage the crop.
“In Virginia, we raise soft red winter wheat, which is used in flour for different types of bread, pastries, cakes and crackers. The quality of the wheat determines what type of product the flour will be used for,” said Harper. “If the weather cooperates until harvest, we could see higher yields and high quality.”
A good dry grain crop will yield a higher price from mills while a lower quality crop brings a lower price and ends up as animal feed.
Farmers “have been able to apply the crop nutrients and protectants as needed in a timely manner,” Harper said. The majority of the state’s winter wheat crop is ahead of schedule for this point in the growing season, due to adequate rains and sun just prior to harvest, he said.
Chilton plans to harvest in late June.
The state’s farmers expect to harvest 8.64 million bushels of winter wheat this year with a yield of 64 bushels per acre, up 1l bushels from 2016, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Last week’s tour was part of the larger Mid-Atlantic Wheat Tour, scheduled for June 12 and 13 in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The Virginia tour was held earlier because this year’s crop will be ready and harvested before the other states.