* Crop less mature than usual due to planting delays
* Needs good weather in next few weeks to reach full potential
* Three-day spring wheat tour kicked off on Tuesday
By Mark Weinraub
DEVILS LAKE, North Dakota, July 24 (Reuters) - Spring wheat yields across northern North Dakota were projected lower than a year ago but were still trending above average despite severe planting delays, scouts on an annual crop tour of the top U.S. spring wheat state said on Wednesday.
The crop was less mature than usual due to the delays and will need good weather in the next few weeks to reach its full potential.
Scouts pegged the hard red spring wheat yield potential across the northern section of the state at 45.1 bushels per acre, based on surveys of 156 fields. A year ago, projected yields were 45.5 bushels per acre. The tour's five-year average for the area is 42.6 bushels per acre.
Durum yield prospects were calculated at 42.5 bushels per acre, with only 35 fields surveyed, compared to 42.6 in 2012.
"Right now ... it looks excellent," said Ben Handcock, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council and leader of the tour. "The biggest problem is going to be if it gets a lot of heat on it when it is trying to fill but who knows what the weather is going to be?"
Scouts reported lots of fields in the northwest areas of the state that were not planted due to the heavy rains throughout the spring. Other pockets of the northern areas also had empty fields, but that was not as widespread as in the northwest.
The U.S. Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency has estimated that there are 4.4 million acres that farmers decided to collect prevent-plant insurance money on instead of seeding, the second largest ever in the state.
Despite the late start, the crop was almost completely free of yield-reducing disease such as scab and stem rot. Pressure from insects such as grasshoppers or aphids also was light.
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 in the boot stage or just flowering, while the crop was in the milk and soft dough stages elsewhere.
USDA 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.
MGEX spring wheat futures for September delivery eased 1/2 cent to $7.43-1/4 a bushel on Wednesday. Chicago Board of Trade soft red winter wheat and KCBT hard red winter wheat also closed lower, pressured by weakness in the corn and soy markets.
Scouts surveyed 195 fields in southern North Dakota on Tuesday and projected an average yield of 43.3 bushels per acre in that area, 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.
Spring wheat yields from the 351 fields that scouts surveyed during the first two days of the tour were calculated at 44.1 bushels per acre, in line with the first two days of the 2012 tour.
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.
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.