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Easter freeze aftermath

Easter 2007 was one to remember for wheat farmers from Kansas to Ohio. During the holiday weekend, Mother Nature brought freezing temperatures and snow to the middle portion of the country, much to the detriment of the wheat crop.

Now that more seasonable conditions have returned, farmers are just now getting a grasp on the extent of the Easter freeze. For some, this clarity is bringing disappointment, as indications this week in parts of Kansas are that the crop will have difficulty recovering.

"When that freeze came, it was just devastating," says Brookville, Kansas, wheat farmer Joe Kejr. "Not quite half of mine is in some form of laying down. The further on we go, with some of my wheat I thought would make it, the more question I have as far as how it's going to end up."

Some analysts have compared this year's spring freeze to one on April 11-13, 1997, that preceded what would be one of the largest winter wheat crops in Kansas history. Though close in proximity date-wise, the similarities between 1997 and 2007 end there, says Kejr.

"We keep hearing we might see some tillers come back up that will take care of the problem, or maybe get a yield like 1997," he says. "We're pretty well convinced this isn't the 1997 freeze. It's just a different story."

The difference, Kejr says, is crop's development leading up to the Easter weekend freeze. This year's crop was around two weeks ahead in its development compared to 2006, and with the plant's growing point higher up, more freeze damage was incurred. The results, he says, are clear when walking through one of his hardest-hit fields.

"It broke off and was laying flat, and it crunched while you walked on it," Kejr says. "Below the joint, the stem was yellow or brown, and with the heads, they're white or brown. We found one or two tillers maybe trying to come back."

While continued green growth is evident in other fields that sustained less freeze damage, much of the regrowth isn't sustained. In his area of north-central Kansas where freeze damage may have been worst, Kejr says even those fields that could recover show damage from which recovery is questionable.

"On the wheat that's standing, the tops are kind of burned, but below that top burned spot, it looks green," he says. "But, when you lay the plant over with your hand to see if there's more regrowth coming, they just sort of break. When you cut one or two of those off, you'll see white or brownish joints, not the green you'd expect to see there.

"Just yesterday, I started seeing that the flag leaf that's coming up is starting to look like it's dying."

Kejr, currently serving as president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, says he's talked to growers around the state who say freeze damage varies according to the crop's development. According to farmers who have posted to Agriculture Online Crop Talk discussion groups since late last week, wheat in other parts of Kansas as well as Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Nebraska are looking at substantial losses.

"The wheat in Kentucky, Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel is pretty much toast," writes Crop Talk poster wheatchris. "Any wheat drilled around mid-October has 80% to 90% of the heads dead, and it's too far along to regrow. It would have made 80 to 90 bushels [per acre], but now it's looking like 30 to 40 bushels [per acre] at best."

Elsewhere in the Midwest, it was the crop's delayed development that ended up being the "saving grace" for wheat in areas that analysts say will recover from the freeze.

"That was the saving grace for Ohio. Cold temperatures are most damaging to the crop when the wheat is at more advanced stages of development," Pierce Paul, an Ohio State University plant pathologist, says of the Ohio crop. "Some injury, seen as burning and discoloration of leaf tips, has occurred, and is more prevalent in fields with early-planted wheat. In addition, fields found in low-lying areas or planted with varieties that are more sensitive to cold temperatures tend to look worse."

What now? Kejr says he's still holding out hope that some of his wheat will recover, but for his more severely damaged fields, he will likely plant those acres to sorghum or soybeans.

"We get a little too hot in the summer for corn. Sometimes it works if we can get it in really early, but it doesn't appear we'll be able to do that this year," he says. "We have crop insurance, so hopefully we can get that figured out in a timely manner so we can move on."

If destroying damaged wheat fields with the intention of replanting to a spring crop, Crop Talk poster basset warns insured farmers to take the necessary steps in the process.

"Everyone, as a reminder, please check with the insurance agent and the FSA office before you do anything as far as destroying [the crop]," he writes.

Easter 2007 was one to remember for wheat farmers from Kansas to Ohio. During the holiday weekend, Mother Nature brought freezing temperatures and snow to the middle portion of the country, much to the detriment of the wheat crop.

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