Winter Wheat Update

Drought Creeps into Great Plains, Followed by Arctic Air

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Winter wheat in the Great Plains faces a host of challenges this year, including droughty fall conditions and a brutal December cold snap. (DTN file photo by Katie Micik)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- All is not as it appears as an Arctic blast pushes winter wheat in the Great Plains deeper into dormancy.

The prolonged, warm fall allowed wheat plants to put on some impressive aboveground growth in October and November, but drought conditions have taken their toll underground. The latest plunge into negative temperatures could put the winter wheat crop at risk.

"Our wheat actually looks really good, but there's no secondary root development yet," said Rick Horton, whose family grows seed wheat under Horton Seed Services near Leoti, Kansas. "For the most part, it's just developed crown roots and they're sitting there about a half inch to an inch long, waiting for topsoil moisture."

This phenomenon isn't too uncommon in semi-arid western Kansas, but Horton said the extent of his crop's underdeveloped roots is surprising. "I've never seen it quite this bad," he said.


Droughty wheat issues made Sunday's delivery to the Great Plains from the North Pole especially unwelcome, DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said.

"Low temperatures dropped to minus 15 Fahrenheit or colder in western and north-central Kansas, eastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska," he said. "This is intense and is threatening to wheat in a large area."

Not only have drought conditions hurt wheat development, but drier soils cool down more quickly than moist ones, and the cold snap wasn't accompanied by significant insulating snowfall, Anderson said. "Winterkill is possible," he said.

Kansas State University Extension agent Tom Maxwell noted that even as temperatures sunk into negative double-digits on Dec. 18, soil temperatures at 2- to 4-inches deep appeared to remain in the upper 20s in Kansas. "Single digits is where we really start to worry about winterkill," he said.

Horton said he thinks his wheat will weather this latest blast of cold air well enough, in part because he was fortunate to receive 2 inches of snowfall, without too much wind.


Horton's underdeveloped wheat roots likely reflect the experience of many wheat producers this fall, according to Kansas State University Wheat and Forages Specialist Romulo Lollato. "The lack of crown root development is due to dry topsoils," he explained in a KSU Extension article. "A wheat plant should ideally have a well-developed crown root system by now to help prepare it to survive the winter."

This system is also key for nutrient uptake. Maxwell said he has seen a number of cases of "drought-induced nitrogen deficiency," where plants can't take up the available nitrogen because of their limited root system and dry topsoil.

After a relatively wet August, "the rain shut off and it's been pretty dry from wheat seeding time to now," Maxwell said. Horton said his area hasn't seen a substantial rainfall since Sept. 8. The U.S. Drought Monitor places all of Oklahoma and Colorado and the western half of Kansas and Nebraska under drought conditions. Much of Oklahoma and the southwestern corner of Kansas have fallen into severe drought conditions.

Blame the oceans for this disappointing slide back into drought, said Anderson. "We did have a weak La Nina Pacific Ocean temperature trend in effect this fall season, and one of the strongest signals with a La Nina (cooler than normal equator-region Pacific waters) is below-normal precipitation in the Southern Plains," he said.

Even with limited root development, growers like Horton are in better shape than many southwestern producers who saw spotty emergence and stand establishment due to this dry weather, Lollato and Maxwell both noted.

"If the seed has not started to germinate until now, chances are that they are still viable and might germinate and emerge in the spring if moisture conditions allow," Lollato said. "It is important to realize that spring-emerged winter wheat has a much lower yield potential than fall-emerged crops, so producers have the option to consider the economic return of going with an alternative spring-planted crop."

The prospect of a 2017 winter wheat crop with diminished yield potential will be a tough pill for many producers to swallow, Maxwell pointed out. "Last year, we had record wheat yields, which partially offset low grain prices," he said. "If we return to below-average yields and below-average wheat prices, guys are really going to hurt."

Horton isn't betting against his 2017 crop just yet. In 2015, he saw winter wheat stand emergence as low as 40% to 50% before late October and early December rains revived it. This summer, some of his wheat won him first place in the dryland winter wheat category of the first inaugural National Wheat Yield Contest, with a yield of 127.94 bushels per acre.

"It's so hard to tell," he said of the 2017 crop. "Wheat is a fickle crop."

For more details on how to check your wheat for underdeveloped wheat roots, see Lollato's article here:….

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Emily Unglesbee