As temperatures warm, winter wheat status is unclear

Frigid temperatures in mid-February rocked the nation’s winter wheat crop.

Now that fields have thawed, winter wheat farmers in the Plains are getting a good look at how temperatures well below 0°F. in mid-February are faring. 

In some cases, it’s not good.

“Wheat that went into winter stressed, from drought or poor temperatures, just had another stress added to it with the cold temperatures,” wrote Jeanne Falk Jones, Extension agronomist in Northwest Kansas, on Twitter after assessing field conditions February 25. 

Fields in the Great Plains experienced sustained temperatures below 10°F., low enough to cause serious concern about the crop’s ability to survive dormancy. Most years, snow cover and adequate soil moisture would help insulate the dormant crop, but 2020 and 2021 have been atypical, as drought conditions persist from western Kansas into western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, says Claire Hutchins, market analyst for U.S. Wheat Associates. 

“Unlike lighter freeze damage, from which the wheat can bounce back under the right conditions, this year’s freeze event has the potential for winterkill in some regions, and ultimately challenges the final production volume,” Hutchins says. 

In Falk Jones’ area of northwest Kansas, fields have been dry since planting, with little snow cover this winter. In those fields, leaf burn is appearing, although there is new green tissue developing close to the crown of the plant. 

As long as the crown is alive, wheat plants will survive, says Amanda De Oliveira Silva, small grains Extension specialist at Oklahoma State University. 

Wheat in the Sooner State is further along than that of Kansas, but at the time the cold snap hit, most of the crop was in dormancy or just coming out of dormancy. 

“The more advanced in growth the wheat is, the more exposed the growing point is and susceptible to injury,” De Oliveira Silva wrote in her World of Wheat blog. “On the other hand, wheat fields planted late in December are also vulnerable as the wheat may not have had the time to develop its crown roots and tiller to sustain these cold temperatures.”

Winter wheat acres in pockets of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska had ample snow cover at the time of the deep freeze. Snow cover protects wheat from freezing temperatures, based on a 1983 report from North Dakota State University. Researchers determined a 2- to 3-inch snow cover can protect wheat plants with good winter-hardiness traits from air temperatures of -30°F. 

Still, farmers won’t know the extent of damage until prolonged periods of warmer weather give the crop a chance to break dormancy and grow, says Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer of Kansas Wheat.

Grower group leaders in other High Plains wheat-producing regions weighed in with observations in the weekly U.S. Wheat Associates newsletter:

  • Colorado: “Winterkill has now become a major concern with last week’s extreme temperatures, down to -15°F. to -25°F.,” said Brad Erker, executive director of the Colorado Association of Wheat Growers. “If we go too long into the growing season without moisture, we will start losing potential. We are in worse shape now than this time last year, and 2020 ended up being a very small crop for us. We can’t wait until the end of April for moisture or we will lose a lot of acres.”
  • Nebraska: “Our concerns are poor emergence, weak stands, and drought conditions,” said Royce Schaneman, executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Board. According to USDA, just 30% of the state’s wheat is rated good to excellent, down from 70% good to excellent this time last year due to substantial drought conditions. The wheat is extremely susceptible to sustained freezing temperatures as parched soil and limited snow cover offer little protection.
  • Texas: “Wheat producers have been challenged by drought conditions this winter, but the weather event over the weekend may have a significant impact on the crop,” said Rodney Mosier, executive vice president of the Texas Wheat Producers Board. “Snow cover, soil moisture, and wheat maturity are varied across the state, so the potential for damage is unknown. According to NASS, the crop has a current rating of 33% good to excellent, compared to 35% last year, but it remains to be seen how the wheat will progress in the coming weeks.”
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