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Wheat crop looking OK, but there are still freeze worries and signs of drought
new deh wheat freeze-drought main pic
Young wheat plants shoot skyward west of Great Bend Wednesday evening. Although holding their own for now and yields could be good, late freezes, drought and disease could be come problems. - photo by DALE HOGG Great Bend Tribune

 Recent showers have bypassed Barton County and its fledgling wheat. But, agriculture officials believe should the spring frosts stay away and the rains come, the crop could still be a good one.

None the less, the weather over the past few weeks has been uncharacteristically warm for this time of year in Kansas, raising concerns for winter wheat across the state.

The area could get another shot at rain this weekend. “I guess we cross our fingers,” said Barton County Extension Agent Alicia Boor.

Right now, the wheat in Barton County is at the jointing stage, she said. This means the young wheat plants have emerged from dormancy, greened up, grown to about five inches tall and are showing their first node, or joint.

At this stage, the undeveloped wheat head can be seen inside the hollow stem and the wheat can withstand 24 degrees for up to two hours without suffering much ill effect. “After that, it will start having issues and there could be moderate to sever yield loss,” Boor said.  

There are variables like plant height and the amount of canopy sheltering the lower parts of the stems.

Damage won’t be visible immediately, she said. “You have to wait seven to 10 days after freeze to check.”

There is some moisture in the soil and that can also help insulate the plants, Boor said.

Next for the wheat, more joints will and the flag leaf will appear and the head will emerge, the boot, flowering and maturity stages.  

Fortunately, the area received some well-timed rains and snows in December and January. These weren’t big events, but they were enough to help. “We still have a decent amount of soil moisture,” Boor said.

Now, the plants can utilize these reserves to hold their own, she said. “But, once they use that up, its going to come to a grinding halt.”

The wheat is hanging back, waiting to for additional precipitation to strike out on its own. But, the crop is showing some signs of drought damage.

“Most fields are showing drought stress,” Boor said. There is some “bluing” of the leaves and some die-back. 

“This is more worrisome than the cold,” she said. “If we don’t get any rain, it won’t matter if it freezes or not.”

However, should the showers come in the near future, Boor believes we will still have pretty decent yields.

“It depends on the individual fields and crop management strategies,” she said. “But we need rain.”

A warm spring

Romulo Lollato, assistant professor in the Kansas State University Department of Agronomy, said warmer temperatures often lead to accelerated wheat crop development.

The week of Feb. 15-21, temperatures in Kansas averaged 5.1 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. Western regions of the state had readings in several locations of 90 F and above. Those high temperatures, coupled with very low humidity, produced an increased drying stress on the crop, according to the Kansas Weather Data Library.

 Lollato said this early warmth bears watching but might not prove detrimental to the wheat crop. There are more factors to consider when predicting the weather’s effect on wheat yields, such as how quickly freezing weather returns after a string of warm days and the growing stage the wheat is in when that happens.

 “Say that freezing temperatures return (earlier in the plants’ development), most of the wheat may still be in tillering stage or just past tillering,” Lollato said. “During this stage, the developing head is still below ground, so it’s protected. In that case, most of the damage occurs to the leaf, mainly leaf burning on the leaf tips, so it’s mostly cosmetic.”

 “Now, if these freezing temperatures return and the crop is already at jointing – where the developing head is above ground – then we do have some temperature thresholds we need to be looking for,” he added. “Generally, we say that if temperatures are between 15 and 25 degrees for a long period of time, that developing head can be damaged when wheat is jointing.”


Water use concerns

This early breakout of dormancy and early green up could cause the wheat crop to begin using water it had saved for later in the season, now.

 “If we are starting to use the moisture now early in the growing season, we may be hurting our yields later on, in case the spring turns out dry,” Lollato said. “In case the spring turns out to be of good moisture and good precipitation distribution, this may not be a problem.”


Disease concerns

 The mild late-winter weather may also increase the chances of disease problems in this year’s crop carrying over from last year.  

 “There is the potential for increased overwintering of the disease,” Lollato said. “Producers probably still have fresh in their mind the last growing season where wheat stripe rust was really bad across the state. Often spores of wheat stripe rust will not overwinter as far north as we are here. But with these warm temperatures, if the spores are there and if there’s enough moisture, they may overwinter. It’s not a bad idea to go out and check for that possibility.”

 “There have been reports in Texas and Oklahoma of stripe and leaf rust, so it is something that (Kansas) producers need to be aware of,” he added. “That’s not to say we need to go out and spray, but it is something to be aware of and scout the fields.”

 Unfortunately, there is not much producers can do to protect against this early green up and breakout of dormancy, because it is a weather issue. Lollato suggests that knowing the status of the crop is the best bet for producers to manage their situation. And remember, warm weather doesn’t guarantee a poor yield.

 “I think we’ve had a successful growing season so far, but there is a lot that could still happen at this point,” Lollato said.