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Wheat yield woes ahead?

Judging from previous experience with a La Niña weather system, wheat growers in much of the U.S. may be facing a challenging production year in 2011, says Mary Knapp, Kansas state climatologist.

“This growing season is going to be very tough on winter wheat in the Central Plains,” says Knapp. “We had very similar La Niña weather conditions during fall for the 2005-2006 growing season, and that was not a very good production period for winter wheat here.”

During a La Niña year, a warm, dry weather pattern will generally persist in the Central Plains from fall throughout winter, as has been the case to date, says Knapp.

“With the dry fall conditions, we've seen fewer wheat plants emerge and less established stands than we usually do from Nebraska to West Texas,” she says. “Looking ahead, we will likely continue to see very little snow cover, with more wind than normal and rapid temperature swings, which will likely make it very difficult for wheat to stay in winter dormancy. This could lead to above-average winter kill. It will also probably cause more dust and wind erosion problems than normal.”

The temperature fluctuations can be quite severe during a La Niña year, Knapp says. “For example, in southwest Kansas, from December 8 through December 21, we had a temperature range from a high of 71°F. to a low of 8°F.,” she points out. “Even in northeast Kansas, we had a temperature swing from 64°F. to 5°F. in a two-day period during December.”

Spring Rains, Temps Critical

If a strong La Niña continues into March, the Central Plains will likely see a continuation of the current dry weather pattern into March and April, says Knapp.

“There's nothing in our weather outlook that shows we'll be filling up our soil moisture levels any time soon,” she points out. “More likely, we will see a gradual increase in the severity of drought. February, March, and April will be the critical periods for winter wheat production. If we get some good rainfall during that time — especially in March and April — it may be enough for the crop to completely recover from a challenging fall and winter. If we do have a wet spring, our winter wheat may actually do fairly well.”

Unfortunately, the current weather outlook for the Central Plains is for below-normal precipitation heading into March, notes Knapp. “So March is really going to be the pivotal month for us for precipitation,” she says. “Typically, the three months of winter precipitation don't add up to what we normally receive in March alone.

“However, the worst-case-scenario would be for mild weather to cause winter wheat to break dormancy in late March or early April and then for a freeze to come in and finish it off, like what happened in 2006.”

An early April freeze is also a worry for south-central wheat producers, says Jeff Edwards, Oklahoma State University Extension small grains specialist.

“For the 7.5 million acres of wheat in the Southern Plains, we typically don't have a lot of snow cover,” he says. “So in our situation, we're more concerned with wheat breaking dormancy right before a cold snap than we would be about winter kill from lack of snow cover.”

For now, despite lower-than-normal rainfall for the region, wheat production is still looking promising in much of Oklahoma and parts of Texas, says Edwards.

“The main factor on rainfall and wheat production is timing,” he points out. “In the Southern Plains, we were able to get some timely rains this fall, so we're sitting in pretty good shape for the most part,” he says.

More timely rains will be needed for the rest of winter and spring, however, for wheat to yield well, says Edwards.

“A lot of nitrogen (N) topdressing goes on in the Southern Plains during February and March,” he points out. “So, if we don't get timely rains then, we could be in trouble with N having to sit on top of the ground. We could lose a lot of that N and face yield reductions if we don't get rains to work it into the soil.

“Also, it's important to get some timely rains in March, when we start to remove cattle from wheat pastures,” adds Edwards. “If we're under a drought at the time, plants won't grow new tillers and reproduce leaves quickly enough to make up for the loss during grazing.”

Still, wheat is much more of a dry-weather crop than a wet-weather crop, says Edwards.

“Some years when you don't have a lot of rains, it will still yield pretty well. And some years when you do have a lot of rain, it will yield poorly,” he says. “So it will fool you sometimes on how well it's going to do if you just look at how much rainfall you're having.”

Limited Yield Losses Likely

Hard red wheat areas in the central U.S. will likely experience some yield loss this season, but other wheat-producing areas likely won't — or won't lose much, says Drew Lerner, World Weather, Inc., meteorologist and owner.

“In the Delta and the Southeast, we'll expect to see lower yields because of drought during planting time. But wheat in the Pacific Northwest should be pretty good,” says Lerner. “In hard red wheat production areas, from southwestern Nebraska and eastern Colorado to the Texas Panhandle and a little south of it, the crop will likely come into spring with low soil-moisture levels. As a result, the speculation right now is that hard red wheat yields will come in a bit lower than normal.”

Soft wheat yields in the Midwest may also be reduced somewhat due to weather conditions during fall that led to late planting and poor establishment, Lerner says. The spring flood potential will also be higher than normal in the Ohio River Basin and possibly in the Upper Midwest, which could also lower the wheat yield potential somewhat in this region as well, he adds.

“Overall, weather conditions in most of the country will probably lead to some wheat yield losses,” sums up Lerner. “On the other hand, nothing dramatically lower than normal is expected for now,” he says.

Slow Start Likely For Northern Wheat Growers

Farmers in the Northern Plains will probably have to wait longer than normal to plant spring wheat in 2011, which could cut yield potential, says Joel Ransom, North Dakota State Extension agronomist.

“With spring wheat, a late planting can take a toll on yield, but it doesn't always happen,” says Ransom. “Two years ago, we had a late start to planting, and we had great yields, mainly due to a cool summer that reduced stress on the plants. Especially during flowering, hot weather can adversely affect wheat production. But for the last two years, we've had mild temperatures during that time.”

Ample fall rains and heavy winter snows are apt to leave soils saturated as spring begins in the Northern Plains, and a strong La Niña weather system will likely cause colder-than-normal weather to persist in this region during early spring, says Drew Lerner, World Weather Inc., meteorologist.

While cold weather is less than ideal at planting time, it can be helpful later in the year, points out Ransom.

“We like to get everything planted before May because early planting is one of the first keys to high yield potential. But if we do have delays, it isn't necessarily bad news,” he says. “A warm April is nice for planting, but we also like to have cool weather during the first six weeks of seedling development.”

Wheat producers needn't get too nervous about production and markets this far ahead of the season, adds Ransom.

“It's too early to tell if the weather is going to be good or bad for wheat production here,” he says. “I wouldn't be heading to the exchange just yet.”

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