Wheat Waiting on Rain

Drought Dominates the Winter Wheat Landscape

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
Connect with Emily:
La Nina conditions could extend the Southern Plain's drought and affect a struggling winter wheat crop. (Photo courtesy KSU)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Justin Knopf's farm in central Kansas went 120 days without a drop of moisture this winter.

Now his winter wheat crop is waking up, looking for water, and finding little to none.

"The Southern Plains drought is intense," said DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson. "Many stations in the region have had the driest winter in their recorded history, mostly going back to the 1880s."

A brief statewide deluge in early October gave early-planted wheat a boost in Kansas, said Kansas State University Wheat and Forages Extension Specialist Romulo Lollato. But it also kept many growers out of the field and produced one of the slowest winter wheat planting paces in decades.

The result is a thirsty, underdeveloped crop heading into the spring.

"Getting moisture in the next couple weeks will be absolutely crucial for holding on to whatever yield potential we still have," Lollato said. Until then, he recommends growers put nitrogen and fungicide plans on hold as long as they can.


"This was the slowest planting pace since 1994," Lollato said. "That means we had way less development in the crop going into the winter. Many had just one tiller and some no tillers at all, when we would normally like to see three to five tillers going into winter."

A sub-zero temperature plunge in early January may have produced some winterkill in parts of north-central Kansas, but for the most part, Lollato believes much of the winter wheat crop survived the winter.

For now.

"We've been doing some digging throughout the state and we're seeing a mismatch between where roots are and where the moisture is," Lollato explained. "We have crown roots only an inch long and the moisture is maybe seven inches down into the soil profile."

Knopf said up to a quarter of his winter wheat acres are coming out of the winter patchy and weak.

"It's greening up, but as soon as it gets warm out and they start to grow, it will use up the little moisture that is there, so it will be concerning if we don't get moisture as we start to get spring growth," he said. "And there's not much in the forecast."

Mother Nature may not cooperate, given that La Nina conditions took hold in the Pacific Ocean this past fall, Anderson warned.

"La Nina events have a high correlation to Southern Plains drought," he noted. "The 2010-2012 drought in the region was also a product of a multi-year La Nina."


Knopf's operation has held off on nitrogen applications for now, but he's starting to get antsy, he confessed.

Without moisture, the wheat crop cannot take up any nitrogen, Lollato said.

"My advice is still to hold off, until there is a better chance of rain," he said. "Many producers are concerned that it's getting late, but wheat can be pretty responsive to nitrogen even as late as jointing."

In more-southern regions, wheat growers' spring nitrogen applications are actually stalled by too much moisture. See this news release from the University of Arkansas on the flooding affecting southern wheat acres: http://bit.ly/….

Southern Plains producers who are accustomed to doing an early fungicide application should also think twice. The dry conditions will likely keep many diseases at bay, which generally need moisture to spread, Lollato noted.

"This year so far, an early fungicide application would not be worth it because there is no disease pressure, and you need good yield potential to justify it," he said.

On the plus side, the wheat streak mosaic virus that destroyed many acres of wheat in 2017 likely won't be a major threat this year, Lollato added.

More producers were on alert to control volunteers because of the intense disease outbreak, and the dry fall kept volunteer wheat flushes in check.

"Once we had rain in late September and early October, whatever volunteer crop emerged simply acted as a normal crop because of the timing," Lollato explained. "So even those who didn't control their volunteers, they came up late enough not to harm us."

In Oklahoma and southern Kansas, some wheat is reaching hollow stem stages, which means it's time to remove cattle from any acres you want to harvest, he added.

For a refresher on how to scout your crop for winterkill or drought injury, see this Kansas State University article: http://bit.ly/….

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

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.


Emily Unglesbee