Winter wheat is beginning to wake up across Kansas and farmers are worried. Brown patches signify winterkill and the casualty rate appears high this year.
“We are seeing a lot of winterkill; it’s worse than usual,” Kansas State District Extension Agent Tom Maxwell told DTN. “But it’s the whole gamut — from dead fields to fields growing well.”
Maxwell works in the central Kansas counties of Ottawa and Saline, the upper half of a central corridor where most of the state’s winterkill cases are being spotted. He estimates that one-third to half the fields in his region are reporting varying levels of dead wheat plants, after a long winter of brutal cold snaps accompanied by little or no snow cover.
A TOUGH PLAYING FIELD
Unfriendly fall and winter conditions teamed up to punish the winter wheat crop, Kansas State Extension agronomist Stu Duncan explained. The combination of a late harvest and dry fall weather meant many fields did not get a good stand up before severe winter freezes set in as early as November.
These weakened plants then experienced three to four periods of sub-zero temperatures and wind-chills without sufficient snow cover to insulate them. Moreover, the dry weather that ensured poor growth in some fields in the fall also hurt the plants during these freezes. “The drier the soil is, the deeper the cold is going to penetrate,” Duncan told DTN.
A temporary thaw in mid-February teased many winter wheat plants into losing some of their dormancy. Temperatures climbed into the upper-60s and low-70s for several days before plunging back into the zero and sub-zero range in very early March.
“Once the wheat starts growing, it loses its winter hardiness,” Duncan explained. “We burned a lot of the wheat off early in the winter, and then when it was just starting to green up and it wasn’t covered, that March plunge certainly made things a little worse. The wheat that did green up then has just gone backwards ever since.”
Western Kansas farmer Kent Eddy discovered this week that fields which did get planted early enough to put out tillers and establish a good crown root system used up most of the topsoil moisture.
“We had about 3,500 acres of wheat planted this year,” Eddy told DTN. “In some of the earlier-planted wheat, there’re some brown spots in there that just aren’t greening up like the later-planted wheat. We planted early because we didn’t have any residue, and we got some growth but it took up a lot of the moisture.”
Eddy, who farms just north of Syracuse, Kan., estimated 25% to 30% of his fields have are showing various levels of winterkill.
“It didn’t kill the whole field — it’s just spots, so we’ll have to evaluate whether it’s better to just leave it and take what we have or try and work it up and plant it to milo,” he explained. “We won’t know for sure until late April.”
THE TILLAGE HANDICAP
Both Duncan and Maxwell said this year reminded them of 1988-89, when a dry fall and lots of wind-blown soils led to a great deal of winterkilled wheat in the spring.
“The big difference between now and then is we have a lot more no-till wheat going into summer crop, residue or even back into wheat and it’s not being tilled,” Duncan noted. “And those stands for the most part look fine. It’s one of the really big differences. Tilling was not a good thing to do last fall for the most part, especially if you got in late because of the late harvest.”
Maxwell agreed that on average tilled fields are in worse shape than no-till fields, although he has seen some exceptions. The recent rise of herbicide-resistant weeds has sent many western farmers reluctantly back to tillage.
“We try to keep as much residue on the surface as we can, so we spray part of the time,” Eddy said of his weed control strategy. “But we’re running into Roundup-resistant kochia weed, so we have to till part of the time to try and control that,” he said.
WHAT TO DO NOW
Don’t rely solely on windshield surveys to assess wheat damage. “The best thing to do is slow the truck down, get out of it and go dig in the field,” Duncan urged.
The condition of the crown root is the best indication of damage. “Live tissue will be celery-colored, whitish to light green, and firm,” Maxwell said. “If it’s mushy or brown, it’s probably winterkilled. Some plants will have no green above, but if the crown still has some green live tissue, they could recover.”
The remainder of March will be a crucial time for the future of this year’s winter wheat crop. “In the next two weeks, we’ll have a good idea,” Maxwell said. “We’re waiting on a good soaking rain and warmer temperatures. That would help us evaluate what’s out there.”
Duncan is worried the dry spring may have already taken its toll. “If we don’t get moisture in March, we’re not going to be set up very well,” he noted. “We’re probably going to have reduced head size and it will go downhill from there. We’ve already set that head size, and I’m betting it’s smaller.”
The latest USDA Crop Progress report noted that western Kansas remains in drought conditions and only one-third of the wheat crop was in good to excellent condition.
If the next week or two reveal substantial winterkill damage, consult your local Farm Service Agency office and alert your crop insurance agent, Duncan added.
“They’ll have some options, depending on what herbicide they put out,” he said. “They could come in with another crop in the spring, but first talk to RMA and FSA.”