Wheat Hanging On

March Freeze Did Little Damage, but Dryness Looms

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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The winter wheat crop weathered a bad freeze well enough in the Southern Plains, but drought conditions now threaten its future. (DTN photo by Katie Micik)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- The March freeze that threatened his wheat crop in the Oklahoma panhandle was not a surprise to Jason Becker.

After a historically mild winter, he'd spent most of the spring trying to keep the crop from maturing too fast. His fields were already three weeks ahead of normal and well into the jointing stage when temperatures plunged well below freezing on March 19 and 20 in wheat-growing states including Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas.

"We all knew it was coming," Becker, who farms in Beaver County, Oklahoma, told DTN. "A lot of guys were holding back on topdressing [nitrogen], including us, to keep it smaller until we got past the freeze danger."

What did surprise Becker and many of his fellow Southern Plains farmers was how well his wheat fared. Becker's region saw some of the coldest conditions: His mercury dipped as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit and his wheat fields spent 24 of those 48 hours below freezing. Yet, a week of warm weather later, he can't find any evidence of the cold snap.

"I've checked different fields and different varieties and talked to lots of neighbors, and no one has found a single dead head yet," he marveled.

Oklahoma State University small grains specialist Jeff Edwards said Becker's experience is likely the norm for most wheat growers, but the crop is far from home free.

"There have been reports of some freeze-damaged heads here and there, but I haven't heard of anything much more than 5% to 10%," he told DTN. "Now if we get another freeze in April, we're dead in the water. But right now the drought and stripe rust should be the biggest concerns."

DROUGHT CREEPING BACK

Growers in northern Texas, western Oklahoma and southwestern Kansas are sliding back into the drought conditions they just clawed their way out of last year.

Becker's fields have had only 0.35 of an inch of moisture in 2016, in part because of a warm, snowless winter. His wheat got a good start in the fall, but the moisture clock is ticking, he said.

"The day after we got done drilling wheat last fall, we had a 4-inch rain," he said. "And we've been living off of that ever since."

With daytime temperatures reaching 80 and high winds sweeping across the Plains recently, wheat is going to go downhill quickly without some rain, added Edwards.

"After three to four days of 80 degrees and high wind, wheat will start looking rough, and after a week to 10 days of that, it will start to go downhill in a hurry," he said of the state's top wheat-producing counties in the north-central part of the state.

Likewise, parts of southwest Kansas have received less than an inch of moisture this year. The U.S. Drought Monitor lists the southern two-thirds of the state as abnormally dry, although some snow and rain events in the past week could change that, said Kansas State University wheat and forage specialist Romulo Lollato.

WEATHERING THE BIG CHILL

Becker's crop had size on its side during the freeze. His wheat plants were already shading the ground in late February, he recalled. By the time temperatures dropped into the teens in late March, the healthy canopy likely insulated the heads buried deep inside the wheat stem from the worst of the cold.

In the weeks preceding the freeze, warm daytime temperatures had also boosted soil temperatures, which play a key role in protecting the growing point, Lollato added.

By late March, soil temperatures 2 inches below ground were above freezing in western Kansas and likely above 40 degrees across the rest of the state, Kansas State University climatologist Mary Knapp noted in a KSU Extension news release.

Another freeze event swept across western Kansas on March 26 and 27, but the coldest temperatures were limited to northwest Kansas, where the wheat is not yet jointing, Lollato said. "It might result in a rough look to the wheat from leaf damage, but we don't expect much yield damage," he said.

For help with scouting wheat for freeze damage, see Lollato's guide here: http://bit.ly/….

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

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Emily Unglesbee