Heat, wind sap wheat crop's potential in key grower Kansas
* Wheat is "literally dying"
* Some farmers put crop at 325 mln-350 mln bushels
* USDA on May 10 estimated 387 million bushels
By Carey Gillam
May 17 (Reuters) - The promise of a bumper U.S. hard red winter wheat crop is eroding by the hour as scorching temperatures and high winds in key growing areas of the U.S. Plains sap soils of needed moisture, wheat experts said on Thursday.
In Kansas, the nation's top producer of the favored bread-making hard red winter wheat, harvest is slated to begin next week, about three weeks earlier than is typical.
But many combines will be running through fields where once bountiful bushels were predicted that now have shriveled kernels on parched plants.
"A lot of the wheat that looked like 60 bushel (an acre) wheat looks like maybe 20 (bu/acre) now," said Dean Stoskopf, a grower who farms in central Kansas. "The wheat is literally dying. It's turning colors; it is turning white instead of that nice golden tan."
Industry crop scouts who toured Kansas the first week of May pegged the state's average yield at a record 49.1 bushels per acre and put total estimated production at 403.7 million bushels. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on May 10 pegged Kansas winter-wheat production at 387 million bushels.
But farmers say now the prospects look even worse, and the state will be lucky to pull in 325-350 million bushels.
Some fields are so poor that farmers are cutting them for hay and giving up on a grain harvest, wheat experts said.
Kansas state climatologist Mary Knapp said hot and windy conditions were hitting the wheat at a particularly bad time, a period when mild temperatures and good moisture help wheat heads plump up with grain.
Temperatures rose to 95 degrees Fahrenheit on Wednesday in the state and were running 80-90 degrees again Thursday. High winds were making conditions worse.
Rainfall so far this month has been only 0.29 of an inch, about 12 percent of normal, according to Knapp.
"A lot of the winter wheat producers are in a real critical point of development," said Knapp.
The declining prospects have boosted wheat futures prices. Kansas City Board of Trade hard red winter wheat futures closed more than 2 percent higher on Thursday as traders eyed the situation.
This weekend could bring some relief, with a 50 percent chance of rain forecast for Saturday night.
But for some fields in the southwestern parts of the state, where combines are expected to start rolling next week, it is largely too late, wheat experts said.
"We are definitely losing yield every day. And southwest Kansas is beyond help," said Aaron Harries, marketing director for the trade group Kansas Wheat. "It's too late. But northern areas, if they catch rain like forecast this weekend, it would help."
Harries said the north-central part of Kansas was looking at 50 bushels an acre for an average yield about two weeks ago. But the outlook now is for about 40 bushels an acre.
Harries noted that despite the disappointment, farmers still see this year's harvest better than last summer's drought-hit crop that tallied a mere 276.5 million bushels.
For farmer Justin Knopf, who grows his wheat in the north-central part of Kansas, the hope is for average.
"We have gone from being optimistic over a potentially record-setting crop to hopeful for at least an average crop. We would be very happy with average," he said. (Reporting By Carey Gillam; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)