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Winter Wheat Farmers Anxious About Winter Injury Symptoms

About this time each year, the winter wheat crop in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska breaks dormancy, shedding its cold-damaged leaves and beginning its journey toward a summer harvest.

Except this year. While many fields have emerged from winter dormancy in fine shape, wheat fields in the Plains are showing much more winter damage than normal, says Lucas Haag, area agronomist at Kansas State University's northwest area office in Colby, Kansas.

"Without a doubt, there are significant stand reductions due to winter injury. We've seen fields with complete losses, to isolated areas that are thinning out," says Haag. He adds that there is no clear trend for why some fields have stand reductions and others do not.  "It's safe to say all of our wheat has had some degree of winter injury," he adds.

A patchwork of winter injury problems have been noted in an area 300 miles wide and 300 miles deep in western Nebraska, central Kansas, eastern Colorado and northern Oklahoma, one of the largest winter wheat producing regions in the nation.

An arctic blast that swept across the Wheat Belt in November is the likely culprit of damage to the winter wheat crop. On Nov. 12, 2014, ambient temperature in Goodland, Kansas plunged to 16 degrees with daily lows from 11 to 21 degrees the next week. That cold snap - which stretched north into Nebraska, east in to central Kansas, south into Oklahoma and west into the eastern counties of Colorado, likely reduced maximum yield potential off the 2015 wheat crop.

"For wheat to get its winterhardiness, nighttime temperatures have to drop to 42 degrees," Haag says. "We didn't have those temperatures to get the crop ready for winter, and instead had a rapid drop in temperatures."

Wheat farmers, obviously, are anxious to see the impact of winter damage to their crop. Haag encourages farmers to scout fields, dig up affected plants and split the crown of the plant open with a sharp knife. Some crowns are brown and dead; healthy crowns will be white. "The majority of the crop is somewhere in the middle," Haag says. "The question is, will those in the middle recover, or will crown rot set in and the crop go backwards?"

It's a waiting game to see whether the crop improves before a decision must be made on whether to destroy the crop. In the meantime, there are some things that farmers should do to manage the wheat crop:

  • Don’t skimp on herbicide. Stands are likely to be thinner due to winter injury. Therefore, weed pressure is more likely. Don't be tempted to cut costs on herbicide, because weeds at harvest will cause additional yield losses.

  • A chance to save on fertilizer? If farmers were aiming for 60 to 70 bushel per acre wheat yields, and winter injury has crushed those hopes, you may be able to save money by reducing the amount of nitrogen applied in topdressing, Haag says.

Haag says it is too early for farmers to throw in the towel on the 2015 wheat crop.

"We're going to have to have some patience, which is hard to do. It's fair to be concerned, but you have to go out there and cut it open. That will tell you a lot more," he says. "Some areas are bad, and we've lost a lot of yield. But we still will take a lot of wheat acres to harvest."

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