Cold temperatures in wheat country get attention but dry conditions could be worse

Recently in the United States, the potential effects of severe cold over most of the U.S. hard red winter and soft red winter crops got the lion’s share of attention in media covering wheat production and markets.

To be sure, bitterly cold temperatures across the United States may have hurt some wheat in parts of the Plains, southern Midwest and Southeast without snow cover. A senior agricultural meteorologist was quoted saying “damage occurred in about a quarter of the hard red winter wheat belt in the Central Plains, with about 5 percent of the soft red wheat belt in the Midwest seeing impacts.”

Agronomists with Kansas State University confirmed that winter kill may be an issue in north central Kansas, where soil temperatures were sustained at potentially damaging levels for the longest time.

“It is difficult to truly assess the extent of the damage at this point,” they reported. “Provided that the crown is not damaged, the wheat will recover from this foliar damage in the spring with possibly little yield loss.”

Winter kill potential and the logistical problems with such cold did spark a brief uptick in KCBT and CBOT futures prices last week. Yet of all the threats to wheat, winter kill is not making the top of the list for farmers. What is keeping more of them up at night now is the lack of moisture.

“I think if we lose wheat, it will be from dry conditions rather than winter kill,” said Don Schieber, a Ponca City wheat farmer and a past chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates. “Some of the wheat that was planted early is big, but some is hurting and turning blue. It is so dry that some farmers have stopped grazing their fields because the cattle are pulling whole wheat plants out of the ground.”

The National Agricultural Statistics Service indicates that drought conditions in Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle and much of southwestern and central Kansas are very dry, noting that for the month of December 2017, topsoil moisture in Kansas was rated 28 percent very short, 49 short, 23 adequate, with no surplus in the state. In northeastern Colorado, dry conditions increased concerns that cold snaps without the benefit of snow cover may have hurt fall-seeded HRW wheat.

Wheat is a hearty crop and Kansas State agronomists made the point that we will only be able to assess the true extent of any damage at spring green-up. But this continues to be a challenging season for HRW in the Plains.