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Winter wheat crop is in tough shape, growers say

If the annual winter wheat tour were taking place, participants would find freeze and drought.

In a typical year, Gypsum, Kansas farmer Justin Knopf would give participants of the Wheat Quality Council’s annual tour of the Kansas hard winter wheat crop a tour in his wheat fields in Saline County. 

Due to COVID-19, however, the 2020 tour was cancelled this year, but that hasn’t stopped Knopf from carefully scouting his wheat crop, which endured a hard freeze on April 3 and again the week of April 13. In winter wheat, the effect of freeze takes a few weeks to evaluate. So far, the freeze appears to have hit the central Kansas wheat crop pretty hard.

“The more we evaluate the freeze damage, the worse it gets,” says Knopf. “It’s common in a lot of early-planted fields to find 40 to 60% damage in primary tillers. Our secondary tillers will still make wheat, if we have the right conditions for them to develop.”

Adding insult to injury, a severe thunderstorm dropped golf ball size hail on some of Knopf’s wheat crop the morning of May 4. Damage from hail is not yet known.

All kinds of winter wheat

The status of the 2020 wheat crop throughout the High Plains is highly variable. Throughout the winter wheat producing states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, the crop has endured freeze, drought, flood and now, foliar diseases such as stripe rust. And while the crop looks good on paper, the condition continues to decline each week, according to the May 4 Weekly Crop Report from the National Agriculture Statistics Service. Here’s the NASS tally of Good-to-Excellent wheat in key states, and crop condition trend: 

  • Texas           45% (up)
  • Oklahoma    65% (down)
  • Kansas         40% (down)
  • Colorado      38% (up)
  • Nebraska     65% (down)

Romulo Lollato, Extension wheat specialist at Kansas State University, says the tricky combination of freeze and drought makes it difficult to ascertain the crop right now. The extent of freeze damage is still somewhat unknown, although the crop from central Kansas north to Nebraska and west to Colorado was hit hard, says Lollato, who scouted fields across Kansas last week. Wheat in this area was planted into dry conditions, and is a bit behind a typical year. 

“Where we had some rain, the crop is recovering [from freeze[ somewhat. But it took away some yield potential,” the specialist explains. 

Knopf says the freeze took top-end yield potential off of early-planted wheat, which typically has more yield potential than that planted later. However, later-planted wheat has less freeze damage. “The freeze kind of equalized our crop,” he says. 

And if the weather cooperates, secondary tillers could produce an average wheat crop. “But if it gets hot and dry, I anticipate a below average crop,” Knopf says. 

Meanwhile, Lakin, Kansas farmer Gary Millershaski says the 2020 wheat crop is all but guaranteed to be below-average.

“We’ve had 3.75-inches of rain since August 1, 2019. That explains why 60% of the wheat crop didn’t come up since February,” says Millershaski, who farms in Kearney County, near the Colorado border. 

Like Knopf, Millershaski says the early planted wheat was hit harder by freeze, and is suffereing from 20 to 50% main tiller damage. Wheat planted later is not as far along, but the drought is taking a tool. 

“When I do head counts, there is still some wheat that could make 50 bushels per acre. But two days of 90 degrees last week was a killer. It started burning some of the wheat to where it is really hurting. If we had a 25 bushel per acre average, I’d be ecstatic,” says Millershaski, who says a 40 to 45 bushel per acre average is typical.

Between drought and freeze, Lollato says a below average yield is expected in Kansas, as of this week. However, with a little luck, the crop could head into the home stretch and surprise farmers.

“The caveat is I’ve seen bad looking wheat turn good with optimum weather in May or June,” he says. 

Stripe rust, too

Lollato adds that stripe rust is starting to creep into Kansas' southern counties. Affected areas were minimally impacted by freeze, so growers would still be wise to consider using a fungicide application. However, as stripe rust moves north, it will affect the areas hit hard by freeze, such as where Knopf farms in Saline County. "Farmers there should look for stripe rust a couple of weeks from now. Buy then, we should have a better idea of what the crop yield potential is, and whether a fungicide application is recommended," Lollato says. 

Some farmers in northern Oklahoma have applied fungicide on stripe-rust susceptible varieties, he adds.

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