The annual winter wheat crop tour organized by the Wheat Quality Council kicks off on Monday and will wind its way across Kansas, wrapping up on Thursday, when participants come up with estimates of the state’s crop and average yield.

More than 60 representatives from food companies, millers, bakers and the U.S. government are joining in the tour.

My guess is we're going to see a better-than-average wheat crop. From what I hear, the wheat in most of Kansas is pretty good," says Ben Handcock, tour coordinator and executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council. "Hopefully that is what we'll find out," he told Reuters News Service

With crop maturity running behind normal due to unusually cool weather, however, crop scouts figure to have a more difficult time than usual coming up with a meaningful crop estimate.

Crop development is running two to three weeks behind normal due to an abundance of cool, damp weather, Dusti Fritz, chief executive officer of the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers told Dow Jones Newswires.

Last year, tour participants had a tough time assessing yield potential because the extent of crop damage from a severe Easter weekend freeze was not fully apparent.

The 2007 crop tour estimated the average Kansas yield at 41 bu./acre and pegged total production at 392.7 million bushels/acre.

However, USDA’s final Kansas crop estimate came in at only 283.8 million bushels on a yield of 33 bu. due to damage from the Easter weekend freeze and from extremely wet weather in late spring that severely delayed harvest.

This year, scouts will be on the lookout for signs of increased disease pressure on the crop and the impact of dryness in the western third of Kansas.

One concern is leaf rust disease, which was discovered April 24 in commercial fields and a variety demonstration plots in south-central Sumner County – one of the largest wheat-producing areas in the state.

In addition, the presence of powdery mildew has increased significantly, which can negatively affect yields.

"The current presence of even low levels of leaf rust and severe powdery mildew suggests that potential for yield loss is significant," Erick DeWolf, Kansas State University wheat plant pathologist told Dow Jones.

Editor’s note: Richard Brock, The Corn And Soybean Digest's Marketing Editor, is president of Brock Associates, a farm market advisory firm, and publisher of The Brock Report.