Southern Illinois University Wheat tour

Participants in a wheat tour examine plants in research plots at Southern Illinois University’s Belleville Research Center.

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Not surprisingly, participants in an annual Illinois wheat tour came up with a relatively low yield estimate. Surprisingly, they didn’t see a lot of disease.

Several groups of farmers, millers, university personnel and others fanned out across southern Illinois on May 29 to get the latest take on the crop.

The yield estimate, calculated as an average of observations in dozens of fields across the state’s Wheat Belt, came in at 64.59 bushels per acre. That is about 1.5 bushels below last year’s count. A common theme was soggy fields.

“Drowned-out areas are going to hurt us on yields considerably,” said Dean Campbell, who traveled with a group that checked fields in Washington and Perry counties. “Just like in school, when you skip a quiz and get a zero on it, it’s hard to make it up with A’s elsewhere. Some fields may see triple digits, but we won’t see field averages like that.”

Amanda Crosby of ADM Milling was among those who stopped at fields in Monroe, St. Clair and Randolph counties.

“There’s very little head scab at this point, which is good,” Crosby said. “Of course, there are a lot of drowned-out spots. We didn’t see any armyworm damage.”

The team that traveled through Montgomery, Macoupin and Madison counties did see evidence of armyworms.

“Leaf diseases were fairly common but not severe,” said Mark Schleusner of USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. “One field had a lot of armyworms. There were some low areas that did not look good, but not many drowned-out areas.”

John Ernst, who farms in Madison County, is also concerned about excess wetness in the fields.

“There wasn’t very much lodging. I don’t think that the wheat is robust enough to fall down this year,” Ernst said. “There are more drowned-out spots and more spots that will probably register as a zero when you combine them. That will definitely hurt yields in our area. This is not the year to plant wheat on flat, black soil.”

Dave DeVore of Siemer Milling led a team that scouted a dozen fields in Effingham, Clay, Richland and Marion counties. He said the crop is a week to 10 days behind schedule.

“We did not see a lot of disease on the flag leaf,” DeVore said. “Every field we ran had tracks on it, so I think the farmers are doing a great job of getting out and getting fungicides on.

“Tiller counts were pretty good — I was surprised. It definitely is wet out there. If that continues, it’s going to be a real concern. Head size was fine. If we can dodge the bullet on disease before harvest, we should be OK.”

Steve Joehl, technology director with the National Association of Wheat Growers, said funding for research on disease — especially fusarium head blight, or scab — is a priority. He said congressional funding has increased from $10 million last year to $15 million in 2019.

“One of the things we pay attention to is scab,” he said. “If we could nail this it would really help us. It’s everywhere. It’s the only line item in the farm bill that we have to pay attention to.”

He noted that the two Illinois members of the House Agriculture Committee — Democrat Cheri Bustos and Republican Rodney Davis — are not from the major wheat-growing regions.

“We’re calling on members of Congress letting them know we have a problem with scab,” Joehl said. “Somebody has got to get them knowledgeable about the issues facing wheat or you’re not going to get that funding.”

DeVore addressed the issue of yield projections. Some years the estimates calculated following the tour fall very close to the actual yield numbers compiled following harvest. But in other years it has missed the mark.

The estimate in 2017 was 61.5 bushels per acre, but the eventual yield was a record 75 bushels. Last year’s estimate of 71.5 bushels per acre was high by about 5 bushels.

“We’ve been doing the same thing since I’ve been here — almost 25 years,” DeVore said. “Some years it’s right on, some years 6 or 7 bushels off. It all depends on the head size. We’re just counting tillers. That’s all we know to do.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.