Walk Wheat Fields

Is Your Wheat Ready for Winter?

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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The number of tillers, leaves, and crown roots in your winter wheat plants will give you a good sense of how the crop will fare over the winter. (DTN photo by Elaine Shein)

ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- Before you dig into your Thanksgiving stuffing and dinner rolls, think about the wheat crop that makes it all possible. Is yours ready for winter?

If you haven't already, grab a spade and the truck and make a new pre-Turkey Day ritual of scouting your wheat fields. Digging roots and examining tiller growth can tell growers a great deal about how wheat plants will handle the winter, Kansas State University wheat and forage specialist Romulo Lollato told DTN.

The aboveground growth of a wheat plant is your first clue to its health. Growers want a happy medium -- enough tillers to indicate good root establishment but not excessive growth, Lollato said.

"Plants that have produced one to two tillers and four to five leaves will be in good shape to handle winter dormancy," he said.

If your plants have too much aboveground growth, they may guzzle topsoil moisture now and be parched later on. Excessive tillers and leaves can also serve as a good breeding ground for wheat pests like the aphids that transmit barley yellow dwarf disease or wheat curl mites that carry wheat streak mosaic virus.

Growers who planted early or those who saw a lot of fall rainfall will be most at risk for these problems, Lollato said. Learn how to scout and treat aphids in wheat from this University of Missouri article here: http://bit.ly/…, and mites in wheat from this Colorado State University article here: http://bit.ly/….

Wheat roots can reveal a lot about a wheat plant's future at this point, so digging up four or five plants in different areas around a field will be important, Lollato said.

"Look at the crown root development because that is what's really going to allow the wheat crop to take in water and nutrients," he said. "You want to see crown roots developing, maybe one or two inches long. Some crops may have one or two; ideally, we would like to see several."

If you planted late and your wheat plants aren't there yet, don't panic. Continued mild temperatures across much of the Great Plains this fall might allow wheat roots to grow more in the weeks to come, Lollato said.

You can find pictures of crown root development in this Kansas State University Extension Agronomy post by Lollato here: http://bit.ly/….

Last year, Kansas and Nebraska wheat growers were subjected to a brutal cold snap in early November that plunged unprepared wheat fields into dormancy and killed some plants. The damage was exacerbated by extremely dry conditions, which left wheat roots especially vulnerable to the temperature drop, Lollato noted.

Fortunately, rainfall was more ample this fall, and the Great Plains' entry into winter promises to be gentler, said DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson.

"The Plains wheat crop is in decent condition right now, and I think has a promising weather pattern to work with going into winter," he said. "Temperatures will trend colder but not bitter cold, and precipitation by the end of the month should be quite ample for the region. El Nino still is the weather driver through winter, meaning continued rounds of moisture along with chilly but not damaging cold temperatures."

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee