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Dry, Cold Weather Raises Concern for Winter Wheat Crop

Lack of Root Development, Snow Cover Increases Chances of Winterkill

Extremely dry weather that’s being joined by extremely low temperatures is raising concern about the winter wheat crop in the southern Plains.  

Less than a half inch of precipitation has fallen in much of the region in the past two months, according to the National Weather Service. That’s less than 10% of normal for this time of year, which is traditionally a dry period for the southern Plains.

One of the biggest concerns is a storm front moving in that will bring windchills as low as -10°F.; along with the prolonged dry weather in the region, it likely will result in some winterkill to the hard-red winter wheat crop.

“There’s actually quite a bit of concern about winterkill right now,” said Justin Gilpin, the chief executive officer of industry group Kansas Wheat. “It’s been so dry and we’ve gone so long without moisture so the topsoil is dry. What happens when the soil is dry and temperatures drop, the dry soil is going to cool down faster, so that increases the chances for winterkill.”

The National Weather Service said in a report on Wednesday morning that Arctic air will make its way to the region later this week. Forecast models have been showing a cold front plunging south into the central U.S.

That will bring much colder high temperatures that likely won’t break above freezing over the Christmas weekend. Some light snow may fall on Christmas Eve, but it’s unlikely to improve any soil moisture.

Gilpin said while it’s normally dry this time of year in southwestern Kansas, the lack of rain in recent months and the prospects for further dry weather are of particular concern. If it stays dry into the first couple months of 2018, then hard-red winter plants likely will in trouble.

“It’s not that we’re not getting moisture (in mid-December), it’s that it was so dry at the end of October and November that we didn’t get any moisture going into dormancy,” he said. “Being dry going into the winter makes the crop more susceptible to winterkill and leads to poor establishment, so when it breaks dormancy, if we don’t have a moisture reserve for the crop to draw from, then there’s quite a bit of concern.”

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of western Kansas is abnormally dry, but there’s a large pocket of land stretching from almost exactly the middle of the state through the Oklahoma panhandle that’s in a “moderate drought.” Adjoining that pocket of dry weather is an area that’s in “severe drought.”

In its latest weekly report, the Drought Monitor said moderate drought expanded westward across the Oklahoma panhandle. Since October 6, the town of Boise City, Oklahoma, has received 0.02 inch of rainfall, well below the normal amount of 2 inches for that time frame.

“Numerous stations in the panhandle reported no precipitation in the past two months,” the Drought Monitor said.

Mark Hodges, the president of Plains Grains Inc. in Stillwater, Oklahoma, which pulls hard-red winter wheat samples from elevators in 12 states and evaluates them for quality, said the winter crop isn’t where it should be at this growth stage.

The cold, dry weather is just another in a long line of problems including army worms and Hessian flies that growers have seen this year. Many farmers had to replant in Oklahoma, so roots didn’t have time to develop before winter dormancy set in.

The incoming cold front likely will lead to some losses, Hodges said.

“We have extremely dry conditions, especially on the surface, and a lack of root development, so when we get into the single digits like we will in the next four to six weeks, without snow cover there’s concern we’ll lose plants,” he said. “On the other hand, if we get some moisture and temperatures moderate like they have been in the past couple of years, that would help immensely. At this point, though, the lack of plant development and very dry surface conditions are an issue.”   

 

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