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Warm Temps, Dry Conditions Cause Concern in Winter Wheat Belt

Warm temperatures and dry topsoil conditions this month are combining to cause some concern about the condition of the U.S. winter wheat crop.

Snow falling in west Texas gave partial relief to the dry conditions there, but areas of that state and Oklahoma still suffer from exceptional drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Most of Kansas and southern Nebraska are considered abnormally dry by the agency.

There is precious little topsoil throughout the Wheat Belt. With temperatures topping 70 degrees in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas this week, one wonders how much of this precious moisture the crop is using, particularly as some wheat fields are awakening from their winter dormant period.

Jim Shroyer, retired agronomist at Kansas State University, says the wheat crop became acclimated to cold temperatures last fall, and a brief warm snap in January shouldn't be a problem.

Even when in its dormant stage, wheat continues to respire and use moisture, but the plants are small enough now that moisture use is minimal, he explains. "However, that first inch of soil is dry, due to wind and the freeze-thaw period," he adds. More hours of light during the day and fluctuating temperatures could cause the crop to lose its winterhardiness, and begin to break dormancy.

"I worry more about the wheat crop really taking off due to warmer than normal temperatures in January and February, which could be a problem if we were to get a late freeze," Shroyer says.

Many farmers are beginning to perform spring topdress applications during these mild temperatures. With dry fields, now is a good time to get that done, adds Doug Shoup, agronomist at KSU's southeast area office.

"The crop is barely growing right now. It will take some time for nitrogen fertilizer to get rained in and convert to ammonium. It won't do any good until there is some precipitation," Shoup says.

Meanwhile, there is minimal disease and insect infestations in Texas and Oklahoma, according to specialists at Oklahoma State University.

Bob Hunger, extension plant pathologist at OSU, says there have been no reports of aphids or powdery mildew in Oklahoma yet in 2015. The crop is dry, but aside from that appears to be in decent shape.

In a blog post from earlier this month, OSU's Jeff Edwards wrote that winter grain mites were found in isolated fields in Major and Alfalfa counties of north central Oklahoma. These pests overwintered from last year; a new generation of the mites typically occurs in April and May from eggs laid on wheat plants in January and February. These pests do not seem to be widespread; however, growers are encouraged to scout for them. Look under residue in no-till fields, or clumps of soil in tilled fields, in the evening when the wind is still.

The Jan. 25 Crop Progress Report from National Agricultural Statistics Service pegged the Texas winter wheat crop to be 76% fair to good, 7% excellent and 17% poor to very poor. The most recent Crop Progress Reports for Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska was January 5; NASS estimated the good to fair rating in those states was 82%, 87% and 89%, respectively.

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