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Spring wheat for Kansas?
Dr. Victor Martin

The Drought Monitor is essentially unchanged except that abnormally dry conditions are moving into northern Stafford County. This isn’t surprising with the Arctic Blast as there shouldn’t have been any moisture loss and while there was a bit of snow, it didn’t amount to much in terms of liquid. However, it did help insulate the soil a bit, keep soil two inch soil temperatures a bit warmer, and help protect the wheat crop’s growing point. The six to ten-day outlook (Feb. 24 to 28) indicates normal to slightly below normal temperatures and normal precipitation outlook. The eight to 14 day outlook (Feb. 26 to March 4) indicates normal temperatures and below normal precipitation for Northwest Kansas with the eastern half of the state above normal with our area on the border between slightly above average to average.  

We are only one week for March, so what does the Climate Prediction Center forecast for March? Unfortunately it looks like above normal temperatures with slightly below to well-below normal precipitation, especially for Southwest Kansas. With the recent weather and concerns for the winter wheat crop, possibly growing spring wheat in parts of Kansas has popped up again. So is it a possibility? For areas west of US 281 and north of I-70 it’s a resounding maybe. For our area not really. Briefly, let’s discuss the why.

• First, can spring wheats be grown in Kansas? The short answer is yes. The better answer is yes, but. Winter and spring wheats are both the same species with differences. They are both cool season grasses. However, winter wheat is planted and establishes itself in the fall, has to undergo a period of cold to flower, resumes growth late winter/early spring, and then flowers, produces seed and matures for harvest, typically in early to mid-June in our area. Spring wheat can’t survive a typical winter. It is planted late winter/early spring (depending on conditions), doesn’t need to go through a cold cycle to flower, flowers, produces seed and matures. So why don’t we plant it?

• I conducted spring wheat trials for almost a decade while at K-State and new trials are underway in Northwest Kansas. Mine were conducted in South Central Kansas. Here are the problems. First, it would germinate, grow, flower and produce seed. The problem much lower grain yields, even under good conditions. Why? It’s a cool season grass and we typically become too hot and dry too early. This does two things. Spring wheat here experiences a much shorter vegetative period than winter wheat with the late planting and with the typical heat, a much shorter grain fill period. It normally won’t flower a great deal later than winter wheat and harvest isn’t all that much later. There simply isn’t time to produce grain. The other problem, especially south of I-70 is that spring wheats are exposed to diseases such as rust species that they simply don’t have resistance to as it isn’t a problem where it is grown north of here. This is due to our climate. Could spring wheat be developed with resistance? Yes but even then why with its lower yield potential.

• Northwest Kansas is a little better fit with still lower yields but K-State is looking at it up there as its milling and baking qualities, especially high protein might make it economical. However, it would have to be segregated from red and white winter wheats.

• It is possible that somewhere down the road, wheat breeders may develop spring wheats better adapted to our climate and disease problems. However, it isn’t a priority and likely won’t be. K-State wheat breeders are focused on hard red winter wheat for the entire state, hard white winter wheat for western, especially northwestern areas of the state, and Durum wheat.  

Dr. Victor L. Martin is the agriculture instructor/coordinator for Barton Community College. He can be reached at 620-792-9207, ext. 207.