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'Patience is key' in assessing wheat freeze damage

The Easter holiday weekend felt more like Christmas from Nebraska and Kansas to Kentucky and Indiana.

Temperatures dangerously low for the developing winter wheat crop hit much of the region, with anecdotal reports of temps as low as 10 degrees in parts of western Nebraska.

But, growers may want to hesitate before definitively assessing damage to the crop, analysts say.

In an Agriculture Online Marketing discussion group, poster straw man says farmers in his Kentucky area have already found enough freeze damage to justify replanting the ground to corn or soybeans.

"The wheat here will be killed and planted to corn if there is any seed to be had," straw man writes. "If not, she will go to early beans."

The temperatures that bottomed out in the 10s and 20s through much of the Plains and Corn Belt likely froze most or all plant tissue above ground. But, the sustained damage these conditions will have on the crop aren't yet clear and growers should be patient in assessing such damage, says Kansas State University agronomist Jim Shroyer.

"It takes several days of warm weather to evaluate the condition of the crop and its yield potential. Even if some of the main tillers are injured or killed, producers should wait to see if enough other tillers survived to compensate for the lost yield potential. Patience is key," Shroyer says. "If it turns out after a week or so of warm weather that the wheat crop is, in fact, severely damaged, there still should be time left in April to destroy it, if necessary, and plant corn. There will be even more time to plant grain sorghum."

Weather conditions from this point on more important to the crop's development than earlier in the year, according to Bill Tierney, vice president of research and marketing with John Stewart and Associates.

Tierney says this year's early wheat progress mirrors 1997, when the crop -- ahead in its development overall like this year -- was hit by a spring freeze but later ended up being the largest wheat crop on record for the state of Kansas. Tierney says it's difficult to peg how much damage, if any, the crop has incurred to date.

"[In 1997,] Fifty percent of the wheat was jointing, ahead of the five-year average of 38%. That year, the freeze occurred April 11-13. It was record cold for those dates, and the crop was ahead in its development," he says. "I'm not saying damage hasn't been done, and that it could be permanent. I'm saying something very similar happened, which was perceived as catastrophic in its effect, and the crop ended up being the biggest crop ever.

"At this moment in time, I'm going to be very skeptical and cautious about taking yields down significantly below trend. It may end up having no discernible difference. As we get more information, we may find out the plants are dead, but I haven't seen any indication that's happened yet," Tierney adds.

One early evaluation of the weekend freeze's effects conducted on test plots in Indiana indicate Tierney's assessment may not be far off. Purdue University agronomist Herb Ohm says a Monday morning look at wheat conditions in plots at a university research farm show little damage, reports indicate.

"I expect wheat to recover and resume normal growth, assuming the weather warms to normal conditions as the spring season develops," Ohm writes.

Whether "normal" spring conditions return in the near future remains unclear. What's clear, says Harvey Freese, ag meteorologist with Freese-Notis Weather, Inc., is that the next few weeks may be a weather roller coaster.

"The next period is going to be fairly active with above-normal precipitation expected in the Plains, Midwest, Delta and Southeast and temperatures below-normal in the northern half of the Plains and Midwest," Freese says. "For the 11- to 15-day period, it's possible we're going to see warmer weather for most of the nation.

"We're in a very active weather pattern. As we get into May, we'll continue to see this swing from cooler than normal to warmer than normal back to cooler than normal through May."

The Easter holiday weekend felt more like Christmas from Nebraska and Kansas to Kentucky and Indiana.

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