WISHEK, North Dakota, July 23 (Reuters) - Yield prospects for the spring wheat crop in southern North Dakota were averaging about 5 bushels per acre better than a year ago but variability was high between fields, scouts on an annual tour said on Tuesday.
Scouts predicted an average yield of 46.7 bushels per acre, based on surveys of four fields in Ransom and LaMoure counties. A year ago, scouts along the same route pegged average yields at 41.6 bushels per acre. The tour's five-year average for the area is 42.6 bushels per acre.
Yield projections ranged from 39.5 bushels per acre to 61.6 bushels per acre.
"Right now, things are looking good but boy it has been a struggle," said Tom Teigen, director of the North Dakota State University Agronomy Seed Farm. "It has made a remarkable recovery."
Growers planted wheat in fits and starts due to heavy rains throughout the spring and the crop struggled early because conditions were too wet until a dry spell during July.
On another route further north, fields surveyed on Tuesday morning averaged 35.3 bushels per acre, well below last year's 45.7 bushels per acre, scouts said. The five-year average for that route, which travels through Cass, Steele and Griggs counties, is 39.5 bushels per acre.
The fields on that route were suffering from the late planting, they said.
"It was just too much rain at the wrong time," said Jim Peterson, marketing director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission. "Our biggest challenge is the short growing season. The late crop will need some time."
Minneapolis Grain Exchange spring wheat futures for September delivery were down 2-1/4 cents at $7.44-1/2 a bushel midday on Tuesday.
The three-day spring wheat tour, organized by the Wheat Quality Council, kicked off on Tuesday, with a record 75 scouts fanning out from Fargo on routes across North Dakota, the top U.S. spring wheat state, 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.
The tour will survey fields in northern and northwest North Dakota on Wednesday before examining the crop in northeastern areas of the state, including the fertile Red River Valley, on Thursday.
The tour will release daily crop reports. On Thursday the group will give a final average yield estimate for the region's hard red spring wheat and durum, following surveys of about 300 fields.
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.
The U.S. Agriculture Department has forecast this year's U.S. harvest of spring wheat, other than durum, at 513 million bushels compared to 542 million a year ago - a quarter of the total U.S. wheat crop.
For North Dakota, spring wheat output is seen at 229.6 million bushels, with an average yield of 41 bushels an acre.
The USDA said on Monday afternoon that the spring wheat crop was rated 68 percent good to excellent as of July 21, a 2 percentage point drop from a week earlier. A year ago, the crop was rated 60 percent good to excellent.