Experts say it?s too early to know if recent sub-zero temps damaged 2010 wheat crop

Two weeks ago in Marion County the high-velocity, wind-driven snow was at times covered with a spotted layer of black silt where it drifted in the ditches.

It looked like the beginning of a dry-weather blow-out that could take a portion of the winter wheat crop with it, if the weather had been dry.

Added to it were sub-zero temperatures and wind chills that can cause the wheat freeze damage if it is at the wrong stages of growth.

But there?s also a chance the weather factors happened at the right moments here to preserve the wheat well, or only test it a little, according to crop experts.

It?s true that the early January Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service estimated that 12 percent of the Kansas wheat crop had minor freeze and wind damage.

It also is true that, even without damage, the wheat crop will be reduced at harvest time next June. U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates for last week placed the acreage planted to wheat at the lowest level since 1918 due to fall weather that saw wet ground conditions and too many fall crops not yet harvested.

It?s that late planting decision that had Rickey Roberts, Marion County extension agricultural agent, concerned for the welfare of some wheat. He said even though it became late to plant wheat with the wet conditions, many producers chose to plant anyway.

?I am mostly going to be optimistic in answering whether there was damage, to saying I don?t think so,? Roberts said. ?But some of that late-planted wheat wasn?t very far along. Some of it was just germinated, had just come up, and that was all.

?We could have had enough freeze or drying on those roots that weren?t far along to have damage. We had very frigid temperatures and wind chills down to minus 30. We know that soil got cold, but how cold did it get, and how did it affect the wheat?

?I?m more just concerned,? he added. ?We won?t know the results of the cold until the wheat starts greening up this spring.?

Justin Gilpin, Kansas Wheat Commission executive officer, said most wheat damage could have occurred in western Kansas because of a lack of snow cover to protect it.

Jim Shroyer, Kansas State University agronomist, said most of the wheat was protected because soil moisture held in a lot of heat even when temperatures were at or below zero for a few days. If it had been dry, the wheat might have blown out or shriveled in the cold.

?When soil temperatures decrease to about 12 degrees, I get nervous,? he said.

Shroyer shared Roberts?s concern about wheat planted late with poor root establishment. If soil temperatures at the crown level about 1 inch deep get into the single digits, Gilpin said, then winterkill is possible.

Damage is most likely on exposed slopes and terrace tops with more wind exposure, or in low-lying areas where temperatures drop, he said.

Shroyer said that young wheat becomes more vulnerable when it has suffered through several freeze-thaw cycles and the upper inch of soil gets dry. The crown can become desiccated, especially with high exposure to wind.

In many fields in this part of the state, the wheat has had time to root down and harden, he said. The insulating layer of snow helped it on its way.

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