Normally by now, it wouldn’t be unusual for area producers to be getting ready to turn out cattle on wheat and rye pasture, especially south of here and under irrigation. Wheat is behind where we would like it to be for the third week of October. Wheat is just emerging, or has emerged and is slowly starting to develop. Normally producers wouldn’t be too happy but this isn’t a “normal” year. When you consider the summer heat and drought just past and continuing, the wheat looks pretty good. Most received enough moisture for germination and emergence, cooler temperatures have helped conserve what soil moisture there is, and compared to what conditions were just a few weeks back, things are about as good as can be hoped. Now what’s needed is normal temperatures and above normal precipitation.
The biggest concern for the wheat crop now is the very limited soil moisture and the two major problems it presents. First, the lack of moisture limits the rate of plant development in terms of yield potential; if the weather heats back up, young plants could run out of water and die; and finally, root systems aren’t developing. We focus so much on what we see, the above ground part, we often can forget that there is as much vegetation below ground as above ground. We worry so much about the above ground environment; we forget that in many ways the soil environment is probably more important. And that leads to problem two. Dry soil, especially during winter, presents two problems. The lack of moisture makes it difficult for the wheat to properly harden off and survive the winter. The resulting plant loss is termed “winterkill” but is often more properly termed “plant desiccation” resulting from lack of moisture combined with cold temperatures, similar to the process of freeze drying. The second concern for dry soil is the soil temperature.
Dry soil cools off more rapidly than wet soil and to a greater depth. If the dry conditions continue, particularly a lack of snow cover, and we experience prolonged intense cold spells, some wheat will likely experience winterkill. We like winter wheat since the growing point is below the soil surface until jointing in early spring. We count on the soil to be warm enough to protect the growing point. With conditions the way they are as of now, that growing point is vulnerable to death from below freezing soil temperatures. Last year, the crop was helped by subsoil moisture while this year it’s lacking.
This past week, the area experienced temperatures well-below freezing. This will help control Hessian fly and other wheat and non-wheat pests. It’s hard to say if we had a “killing frost” since that depends of what you are trying to “kill.” °Generally speaking, a killing frost for our area would be temperatures under 28° F for at least several hours and for many things under 26° F. That isn’t much consolation if your favorite outdoor plants are toast. The weather service will let us know the official end of the summer growing season.
What kind of winter are we going to have? Mary Knapp, state climatologist, after examining Kansas weather records found little correlation between summer and winter weather. In English, a dry, hot summer doesn’t predict a dry, warm winter and vice versa. What does help predict our weather are the ocean currents off the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean. Climatologists see a strengthening La Nina which would indicate below normal moisture for the area over the winter. As of now, the three month outlook indicates normal to above normal temperatures combined with below normal precipitation. Here is where a weatherman joke could be inserted but instead, let’s just hope they’re wrong.