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MAX, North Dakota, July 24 (Reuters) - Spring wheat yield prospects in northwestern North Dakota are lower than they were a year ago but still better than average, scouts on an annual crop tour of the top U.S. spring wheat state said on Wednesday.
Much of the crop in the area was seeded later than usual, and because of its delayed development, the crop will need good weather in the next few weeks to reach its full potential.
Scouts on one leg of the Wheat Quality Council's annual spring wheat tour projected yields of 47.9 bushels per acre, based on surveys of six fields in McLean and Ward counties.
In 2012, the average forecast on the same route was 51.0 bushels per acre. The tour's five-year average is 45.9 bushels per acre.
"It just needs time," said Ben Handcock, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council and leader of the tour. "A lot can happen during the three, four or five weeks until harvest."
Scouts did see some fields that farmers were unable to plant, likely due to wet soils, but the empty acreage was less than expected. Farmers planted in fits and starts during the spring due to rainy weather that forced them to keep their tractors parked in equipment sheds.
The uneven pace of planting led to a wide range of development in the wheat surveyed by the scouts. In some fields, the wheat was just flowering, while the crop was in the milk and soft dough stages elsewhere.
Northern areas suffered from the cold and damp spring more than other parts of the state. Some fields still had snow in them at the beginning of May.
Scouts on another route farther east forecast yields of 45 bushels per acre, compared with 52.0 bushels per acre a year earlier and the five-year average of 45.9 bushels per acre.
Yields on a third route, which ran farther west and included Mountrail and Burke counties, were pegged at 55.3 bushels per acre, above the tour's 2012 average for that route of 42.2 bushels per acre.
The U.S. Agriculture Department has forecast North Dakota's spring wheat harvest at 229.6 million bushels this year, with an average yield of 41 bushels an acre. Spring wheat makes up about a quarter of the total U.S. wheat crop.
Scouts surveyed 195 fields in southern North Dakota on Tuesday and projected an average yield of 43.3 bushels per acre, up from 42.9 in 2012 and above the five-year average of 41.7. Veteran scouts said they expected that routes in the southern areas would be the best-yielding in the state.
The three-day spring wheat tour kicked off on Tuesday in Fargo. A record 75 participants are scouting fields across North Dakota as well as western Minnesota and northern South Dakota.
This year's participants include farmers, market analysts, grain buyers, government statisticians and officials from food companies such as Kraft Foods Group Inc and General Mills Inc.
After surveying northern and northwest North Dakota on Wednesday, scouts will head to the eastern portion of the state on Thursday, taking samples from the fertile Red River Valley before concluding the tour back in Fargo.
The Wheat Quality Council will give a final average yield estimate for the region's hard red spring wheat and durum crops on Thursday afternoon.
Hard red spring wheat is a high-protein crop used to make flour for bread and pizza dough. Durum is a key ingredient in pasta.