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The Weather Outside Is Frightful
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Those past a certain age can name the song the title of this column came from. There aren’t many fans of the weather that descended upon the Great Plains the past week, especially after the balmy weather over Thanksgiving weekend. Outside of our discomfort and many peoples urge to strangle those they meet who love this weather, is it really a “bad” thing. What are the benefits of this weather winter for agriculture? First let’s summarize the downside.
• Prolonged cold spells, especially combined with very dry soil conditions, can lead to the loss of winter wheat stands. Cold damage here to the wheat or canola crop typically occurs later in winter or early spring. Damage also occurs when severe cold occurs if plants haven’t had an opportunity to harden first.
• A significant amount of wheat was planted fairly late in the fall due to a late summer crop harvest and wet soils in areas. That wheat could have used more time to develop a root system, cover the ground, and establish tillers. Producers pasturing now on wheat or rye would have appreciated more time for fall growth.
• Other negatives can involve equipment, especially diesel powered; caring for livestock and the effects sudden severe cold and cold in general can cause, especially later during calving; and the effects on us if not properly prepared to work outside. However, there are many benefits to a “typical” winter.
• The most obvious is that since we plant winter wheat, it will not flower and produce a grain crop without vernalization. Without a certain accumulation of cold, depending on the variety, wheat will not produce grain.
• While we have many plant and animal diseases to monitor, without a “normal” winter the problems with typical diseases would be more severe and other diseases would likely appear.  An example is leaf rust on wheat. Leaf rust typically can’t overwinter in Kansas but must move up in the spring from Texas. Other diseases would inflict much greater damage without the interruption of their life cycles by winter.
• Similarly insect pressure on plants and animals would be more severe. Some are forced into dormancy in different ways to survive. If conditions are severe enough, their numbers are decreased come spring. Some can’t overwinter and must move in each spring and summer. Again, the result isn’t that we have no insect pressure but that winter helps keep populations in check. So instead of an almost 100% guarantee of a problem, we tend to have more sporadic problems.
• Weed pressure is affected similarly to weeds and diseases. As problematic as weeds currently are, imagine the level of weed pressure we would have without winter.
• Finally, a normal winter acts as a kind of brake and prevents crops such as wheat, canola, and alfalfa from breaking dormancy too early which can leave them susceptible to freeze damage.
What would have been helpful for the wheat and canola in the ground is several inches of snow to protect the crop and insulate the soil.  While we aren’t thrilled with this weather, it helps define our agricultural production system and provides significant benefits.