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The latest wheat winterkill prognosis

Jeff Caldwell 02/24/2014 @ 1:23pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Tired of winter yet? If you're a wheat farmer, your crop probably is, too.

The last few weeks have seen hard red winter wheat conditions slumping in the heart of the nation’s Wheat Belt. Many areas have lacked the snow cover to keep the young wheat crop protected from the subzero temperatures.

But wheat’s a tough crop, and quite a few acres that farmers and crop-watchers once thought might not make it through the winter are sticking it out.

Now, just because Old Man Winter’s packing up and moving out, the weather concerns -- namely how they could bring on winterkill, a fear that’s been strong throughout winter -- aren’t over.

In fact, winterkill dangers will be greater in the next month or so than now, even though temperatures have been far colder than they will be by late March and early April.

“My biggest concern is for early April, when wheat will be emerging from dormancy. The temperature outlook is still well below normal, and as we saw last year, that’s the time period when a freeze can really do some damage,” says MDA Weather Services senior ag meteorologist Don Keeney.

Though winterkill concerns were greatest in the western Plains in 2013, Keeney says the eastern Plains and western Midwest is "the most vulnerable area" for potential late-winter and early-spring winterkill damage.

Repeated periods of temperatures 20 degrees below normal have weighed hard on the young wheat crop. In late January and early February, some areas in the central Plains did see winterkill damage, but as the Arctic vortex continues to swing south in later subzero bouts, the damage has been lighter, Keeney says.

Now, Mother Nature is shaping up to deliver a couple of potentially painful blows; farmers should remain wary of these. First, Keeney says any severe temperature dips could hamper yields most from about northeastern Kansas through Illinois and into western Indiana. Meanwhile, the chilly temperatures for which the winter of 2014 will be remembered will have just as tough an effect on the other wheat crop: spring wheat in the northern Plains.

“With the persistent cold pattern in the northern Plains through April and even into early May, soil temperatures up there will remain quite cold, so I do think we’re going to see some considerable planting and emergence delays,” Keeney says.

Layer the overriding concern for both the spring and winter wheat crops on top of the lingering potential for winterkill damage: Drought.

Even if temperatures do make their way out of the winterkill potential zone, dryness continues to pose a threat to the crop’s yield potential and, in some areas, basic survival.

“Virtually all of the Plains states are in some kind of drought status; moderate temps and spring rains will be critical to get this crop going after a stressful winter,” says Louise Gartner, wheat specialist and analyst with Spectrum Commodities, adding that the weather has helped keep a solid floor under wheat prices in the last few weeks.

“The growing season is gearing up, and we’ll just have to see what the weather brings."

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