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Plains wheat battling a deepfreeze

Jeff Caldwell 04/10/2013 @ 3:38pm Agricultural content creator and marketer.

It's like adding insult to injury. After a downright painful growing season in much of the Plains, now the region's winter wheat crop is feeling the sting of freezing temperatures at another critical juncture in crop development.

The real focal point of the weather fireworks is further east in the Midwest, where a system is moving through, dropping rain -- and snow in northern parts of the region -- and preventing farmers from making any early planting progress.

But, behind that system is a wall of cold air that's going to put a lot of pressure on the Plains winter wheat crop, some of which has reached the jointing stage. It's a bad time for temperatures from the teens to the 30s, which much of the region will see in the next few days, says MDA Weather Services senior ag meteorologist Don Keeney.

"Temperatures this morning have dipped into the mid-teens to low 20s F in a large portion of western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, western Oklahoma, and northwestern Texas. Wheat there is jointing, and some damage will likely occur to the wheat there as a result," he says.

"These extremely cold temperatures have likely resulted in some notable damage to the wheat, as wheat becomes less cold tolerant as growth increases," Keeney adds. "This spring freeze is affecting approximately 10% of the winter wheat belt in the Plains"

That damage will likely come in the form of lost tillers, adds Kansas State University Extension crop production specialist Jim Shroyer. Wheat in the jointing stage can usually tolerate temperatures in the mid- to upper-20s with no significant injury, Shroyer says, according to a university report. If temperatures dip below that, however, damage can come quickly.

"If the leaves of tillers are yellowish when they emerge from the whorl, this indicates those tillers have been damaged," Shroyer says. "Existing leaves may also be damaged so severely that they turn bluish-black and water-soaked in appearance, then bleach out. This usually results in the field’s having a silage smell."

If your crop's not quite jointing, you're in better shape. Though you'll still likely see some kind of damage if temperatures dip into the low-20s, it won't be as bad.

"This wheat will have cosmetic damage to the leaves that will show up almost immediately. If new leaves emerging over the next few weeks are green, that will indicate that the growing points survived and the plants will still produce tillers. If the new leaves are yellow, the growing point of that particular tiller was killed by the freeze," Shroyer says. "The best thing producers can do for the first few days is walk the fields to observe lodging, crimped stems, and damaged leaves.

"Be patient. Do not take any immediate actions as a result of the freeze, such as destroying the field for recropping. It will take several days of warm weather to accurately evaluate the extent of damage," he adds.

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