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Weather Starter: Rain Continues, Frost Rattles Nerves in the Plains

A weekend of active weather in the Plains and Midwest has ushered in what is likely to be a week of continued rainfall in the Plains. Tonight, temperatures may dip into the 20s in the northern Plains. While the former is usually a blessing for that region's winter wheat crop, the continued wetness is raising disease incidence and concerns, and the latter could nip any corn that's already in the ground, especially in North Dakota.

The weather storyline of greatest concern as the week begins is frosting and freezing temperatures in the northern Plains, where temperatures could reach the mid-20s tonight and early tomorrow. Although a cooldown is not all that uncommon this time of year (it falls within the normal 10-day range for last frost/freeze in much of the Dakotas), there's a lot more corn in the ground in that region than normal: Last week's USDA-NASS Crop Progress report showed 64% of North Dakota's corn crop was planted as of a week ago, more than twice the normal progress. Much of that corn could be at risk if temperatures dip too low for too long, says MDA Weather Services senior ag meteorologist Kyle Tapley.

"Low temperatures in [North Dakota, northern and eastern South Dakota, and northern and western Minnesota] will range from the upper 20s to low 30s across these areas, leading to some frost that may damage any of the corn crop that has emerged. However, temperatures in the major crop areas should not be quite cold enough to cause major damage. And, as of last week, only 6% of the corn crop had emerged in North Dakota, so any crop damage should be rather limited," Tapley says. "A freeze across these areas is not unusual during this time of year, with the median last spring-freeze date for most of North Dakota falling between May 11 and May 20. Temperatures will remain below normal across the northern Plains throughout this week, but tonight will feature the coldest temperatures."

Rainfall amounts ranging from .5 inch to 1.5 inches were common in the Plains over the weekend, with some isolated pockets in excess of 2 inches in the Plains from northern North Dakota to southern Texas, continuing an anomalous period of wet weather for that region in the last two months. That rain is expected to continue, especially in central and southern parts of the region, through the next week to 10 days.

"The continued rainfall across the central and southern Plains increased wetness concerns and the threat for disease in the hard red wheat crop," he says. "Rains this week are expected to be heaviest across the west-central and southern Plains, which will further increase disease threats and may also lead to some flooding."

While the rain is good news in the broader context of helping the region recover from the last few years of drought stress, it's not the best news in terms of the wheat crop that's moving toward maturity. The moisture is causing diseases to pop up throughout the region, with diseases like stripe and leaf rust, Fusarium head blight, and powdery mildew -- all problems that are fueled by damp field conditions -- have sprayers in the air through places like Nebraska and Kansas in an effort to preserve any remaining yield potential, some of which has already been trimmed by dryness earlier in the growing season.

"Severity of wheat diseases favored by wet weather is also increasing," says University of Nebraska Extension plant pathologist Stephen Wegulo, adding that stripe rust, powdery mildew, and nutrient deficiencies in yellowing wheat have been discovered in the southern third of Nebraska in the last week. "Recent, current, and forecast weather conditions indicate that the risk of Fusarium head blight may be high this growing season, especially in the eastern, south-central, and southwestern parts of the state. In a growing season with favorable weather conditions, symptoms of Fusarium head blight start showing up in late May to early June.

"Continue scouting wheat fields for diseases. Due to the current and forecast weather conditions, which are favorable to disease development, a fungicide application is recommended to protect the flag leaf from stripe rust, powdery mildew, and leaf spot diseases such as Septoria tritici blotch and tan spot," Wegulo adds. "The best timing for a fungicide application to suppress Fusarium head blight is at early flowering."

Heading east from the Wheat Belt, farmers in the Midwest are likely to see another week of decent planting progress as precipitation remains light and isolated through much of the region.

"Drier weather across the Midwest this week will favor corn and soybean planting, but below-normal temperatures will slow germination of crops," Tapley says.

It adds up to a much-needed break from rain that has some areas waterlogged, farmers report.

"We are wet and so much so that it's not going to be a good year this year, either: 1.7 inches on top of the .9 on top of soils too wet from before," says southern Iowa farmer and Marketing Talk adviser Hobbyfarmer. "Just looked at the rain gauge and could see the river is full, and my freshly planted beans with a 2-inch root are literally under a lake. More rain later this week = big-time undertrend yields here."

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