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Women in Ag: Did Wheat Survive the Freeze?

I thought because we don’t grow fruit crops on our farm, freezing temperatures that hit North Carolina a few weeks ago weren’t a concern.

I was wrong. When I wrote this post about farmers trying to save strawberries, apples, and other fruits from freezing temperatures, I didn’t realize one of our crops might also be damaged.

We grow soft red winter wheat, which is the class of wheat grown by most farmers in my state. This class has lower protein, so the grain is often used for livestock feed. When ground into flour, it is used in cookies, biscuits, crackers, pastries, and other foods. It is not used for bread. 

We had a hard freeze over two days in the middle of March. In the eastern part of the state, where I live, wheat fared better than in the Piedmont (middle of the state), where some farmers lost 90% of their wheat crop.  

When my husband talked about assessing our wheat to see how much damage we had, I wondered how the crop could be damaged. I knew wheat had matured early due to an unseasonably warm winter, but the grain heads hadn’t emerged from inside the stem. It turns out that while the sugars in the leaves can insulate the grain head and protect it, they are still susceptible to freeze damage.  

As wheat plants mature, they are more vulnerable to spring freeze. Our wheat is in the reproductive stage, so the plant is putting it’s energy into producing a grain head. The head, or spike, of grain was moving up the plant, but it hadn’t emerged yet. This is called the boot stage. Plants at this stage are sensitive to freezing temperatures over a prolonged period of time.

In the east, temperatures dropped to 24˚F. or below, but they didn’t stay that low more than two hours. Any longer and wheat could have been significantly injured. In the Piedmont, temperatures dropped to the teens. 

In addition to temperature and duration, other factors that influence the amount of freeze damage on small grains (including wheat and barley) include:

  • Variety of wheat 
  • Stage of plant growth
  • Plant moisture
  • Wind
  • Rain
  • Land elevation
  • Topography

We can’t control any of the circumstances that may damage or kill wheat. We can only asses the damage and decide what to do after the freeze. Our wheat had some damage, but we are continuing to manage it for the grain. Farmers whose fields had significant damage may choose to start managing their wheat as a cover crop, which means they won’t harvest the grain. In a year where a record wheat crop was predicted, those two nights of freezing temperatures were very costly to some North Carolina farmers.

Want to know more about the six classes of wheat and the products made from each?  Visit this article from the Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Association of Wheat Growers.

For a much better description of the growing stages of wheat – and photos – visit North Carolina State University’s Small Grain Production Guide.

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