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Winterkill Likely Widespread as Low Temperatures Hit Wheat Belt, Midwest

The deep freeze in the Midwest is likely doing significant damage to winter wheat crops that lack a protective layer of snow, according to analysts and meteorologists.

Snow cover was adequate in the northern Plains and northern Midwest, but “very thin” in the central and southern Plains and southern Midwest, said Donald Keeney, a senior agricultural meteorologist for Radiant Solutions.

Temperatures on Monday were the second-coldest on record for New Year’s Day in Kansas City at -11°F. Windchills clocked in at -20°F., according to the National Weather Service.

“Widespread winterkill occurred on Monday across southeastern Colorado, much of Kansas, far northern Oklahoma, central Missouri, southern Illinois, and southwestern Indiana,” Keeney said in a report on Tuesday. “Damage occurred in about a quarter of the hard-red wheat belt in the central Plains, with about 5% of the soft-red wheat belt in the Midwest seeing impacts.”

The threats of crop losses pushed hard-red winter wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade to the highest closing price in a month on Tuesday.

Winter wheat has the best chance of surviving a freeze in December, January, and early February, according to Kansas State University. Still, the brutal cold in the past week combined with extremely dry conditions likely means growers will see some winterkill damage.

Commodity Weather Group said in a note on Tuesday that three fourths of the southern Plains suffered from winterkill on Monday, and that parts of the Midwest will continue to see cold air surges for the next 10 days. “Spotty winterkill” is expected in parts of Missouri and Illinois, the forecaster said.

Little or no rain has fallen in the past three months in much of the hard-red winter wheat belt that’s composed of western Kansas and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, according to the National Weather Service.

“We haven’t had much moisture in the Plains, so it’s been a very dry two-and-a-half months, at least, so (wheat) went into the ground in decent shape, but it dried out from there,” Brian Hoops, the president of Midwest Market Solutions in Springfield, Missouri, told Agriculture.com. “Now this cold isn’t doing anything good for the crop whatsoever.”

It’s difficult to determine how much damage the cold, dry weather has caused, Hoops said. It’ll be months – when the crop breaks from winter dormancy – before the extent of the damage is realized, he said.

Temperatures are expected to rise across the country as the week goes on, according to weather forecasts. Another cold front, however, may be moving into the eastern Midwest where soft-red winter wheat is grown, Radiant’s Keeney said. That may cause additional damage to plants, he said. The winterkill threat should end early next week when readings moderate.

If wheat growers are forced to tear out their crops due to winterkill, it’s unknown what they’ll plant instead. Corn and soybeans are common options, but it will all depend on prices, Hoops said.

“There’s a genuine fear with wheat prices being the way they are,” he said. “If the crop is going to get torn out, they’ll probably take insurance on it and zero it out – half a crop at $4 a bushel is a disaster.”

The U.S. winter-wheat crop is already going to be small. A Department of Agriculture report next week is expected to show that growers planted less than they did last year when acreage fell to the lowest since 1909, and any losses will be exacerbated by the fact that protein levels have been low in the past two years.

Some farmers are already thinking ahead to what they’ll replace their hard-red winter wheat crop with if they have to tear it out. Hoops said some growers have told him they’ll likely plant oats because the grain remains profitable, while others have said they’re taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Farmers are going to wait as long as they can in terms of tearing out and replanting” another crop, he said. “There’ll probably be a lot of guys waiting until the very end of the insurance time frame to make that decision.”

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