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Wheat and the arctic blast
Dr. Victor Martin

The Drought Monitor is essentially unchanged again this week. While we are still abnormally dry we haven’t become drier and with these temperatures and forecasted snowfall, it’s possible conditions may improve a bit. The six to ten-day outlook (Feb. 17 to 21) indicates well-below normal temperatures and a strong chance of below normal precipitation outlook. The eight to 14 day outlook (Feb. 19 to 25) indicates a strong chance of continued below normal temperatures (not quite as cold) and well-below normal precipitation. Looks like the groundhog’s prediction was correct.  

Before this Arctic blast ends, it will have been around two weeks with temperatures below freezing and a good string of days with lows, and some days with highs, in the single digits and lows less than zero. Producers are naturally concerned about their winter wheat crop and the possibility of winterkill. So, what is the likelihood of damage to wheat in our area?

• It’s not air temperatures directly but soil temperatures we need to be concerned about. At this stage, the growing point for wheat, where new growth comes from, is below the ground at the seeding depth. The above ground portion at this stage can all die back and the plant should be fine and regrowth will occur. The key is protecting the growing point which stays below the ground until jointing, usually mid to late March here.

• Wheat develops winter hardiness, cold tolerance, in the fall as temperatures start to decrease and daylight lessens. This leads to physiological changes throughout the plant making it more tolerant to cold temperatures. It is most winter hardy at the start of winter and becomes less tolerant as day length and temperatures start to increase. It will start to green up, especially with warmer temperatures and moisture. It can regain a greater level of winter hardiness if temperatures don’t decrease too rapidly. The question is where are we in the Golden Belt?

• Dry soils lead to greater damage and winterkill than wetter soils. Soils in the area range from adequate to abnormally dry. Soil moisture helps the soil cool less and adequate soil moisture also keeps the root system, crown and growing point in better condition to avoid freeze damage.

• Better established, better tillered wheat is better able to withstand this weather than thin, poorly tillered stands. The wheat foliage helps insulate the soil a bit.

• Snow/ice cover also help insulate the soil and keep the soil temperature a bit warmer. Two to four inches of snow do wonders at protecting the growing point.

• How low the soil temperature goes, how deep freezing temperatures penetrate, and for how long are important factors also. K-State provides two inch soil temperatures around the state. We just have to wait and see.

• Finally, the overall condition of the crop matters. How developed it is, its moisture and nutrient status, etc.

We really won’t be able to tell what, if any damage, has occurred until things warm up and the wheat crop starts to green up, or should green up. There likely will be some damage, especially in the drier regions of the state. Only time will tell.

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