Oklahoma wheat harvest held up by Mother Nature

Carrie Underwood sang the chorus “There’s not enough rain in Oklahoma,” but Oklahoma wheat growers disagree with that sentiment after a month and a half of flooding, tornadoes and just plain crazy weather. The continued wet conditions across the state are impacting the wheat crop in multiple ways, including diseases, pests and harvest in general.

“It’s kind of a conglomerate of things that are occurring in wheat this year in terms of diseases,” said Robert Hunger, wheat pathology professor at Oklahoma State University. “This year because of all the wet weather, we expected the foliar diseases—rusts, powdery mildew and the leaf spot diseases to really be prevalent. It took quite a while for those to get going, but they did increase and have taken their toll on the wheat crop.”

A disease by any other name

Josh Bushong, northwest Oklahoma area agronomy specialist with the OSU cooperative Extension service, said as the month of May began, he started to see stripe rust, and eventually actual leaf rust in his territory.

“Powdery mildew is throughout the state in pockets, particularly in earlier planted wheat with thicker stands,” Bushong added. “We have some tan spot which usually stays lower in the canopy but in some fields we were seeing it all the way up to the flag leaf. We’re starting to see some potential issues with fusarium root rot as well as fusarium head blight.”

Hunger says the leaf spotting diseases, including tan spot, are extremely sensitive to wet weather and have been a major hinderance to wheat with all the rainfall in the state.

“We’ve seen a lot of leaves that were eaten up early by leaf spotting diseases,” Hunger added. “Leaf rust and stripe rust to some extent have caused problems as well. Powdery mildew hasn’t been as much of a problem from what I’ve seen, but what has come on this year because of the moist conditions is a bacterial disease—bacterial leaf streak, also known as black chaff.”

Hunger says the longer the crop sits in the field after maturity and stays wet and humid, the more problems arise. Also, in central, northern and northwest Oklahoma a lot of white heads have started to show up.

“As near as we can tell, it’s mostly due to root rot,” Hunger said. “With a lot of wet weather the roots start to get degraded and the transport of water up to the head gets disrupted, causing white heads.”

Heath Sanders, southwest Oklahoma area agronomy specialist with the OSU cooperative Extension service, says now that the wheat is changing, he is seeing a lot more areas where water was standing. Sanders says he has seen a lot of white heads in terrace channels, low spots, old plow furrows.

Let’s get this harvest started

Sanders says growers have been trying to cut wheat in the southern part of the state, however it has been hit and miss.

“I would say if we had a good week with some sunshine, there’d be a lot more wheat cut in southern Oklahoma,” Sanders said. “If it continues to rain, we’re going to continue to see our test weights decline. As much water as we have had, I’d venture to say test weights are probably going to be a little lower this year than normal as it stands.”

Bushong agreed Oklahoma’s wheat will most likely suffer when it reaches the elevator.

“The areas that were completely flooded for a couple days definitely will have prematurely terminated crops, so we’re going to have some issues with yields being low, grain quality reduction, small shriveled seeds and lower test weights,” Bushong said.

Additionally, Bushong indicates a lot of flooding usually brings armyworms and they have been spotted in fields the last few weeks. In addition, he says some wheat head armyworms have been seen, which typically cause direct damage to the grain kernel. Furthermore, Bushong says he has seen some lodging as the wheat entered a later stage of crop growth.

“Those stands aren’t going to correct themselves and go back vertical,” he added.

Those who sprayed will get paid

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“About the end of April, first of May, we started seeing more disease pressure coming in with leaf rust and striped rust in southern Oklahoma,” Sanders explained. “The big question was do we go ahead and put on another fungicide on the wheat depending on crop maturity. There were a lot of acres that were sprayed in that April to May time-frame just to protect yield.”

Sanders said applying the fungicide helped keep the plants green and stay healthier longer. However because the wheat crop looked so good before all the flooding occurred, many producers chose to forego that step.

“Because there was high yield potential, a lot of growers didn’t put on a fungicide and that would have helped with all of these foliar diseases,” Hunger explained. “Now the big problem is we can’t get the wheat crop to finish off, mature and dry out enough for them to be able to get in the fields to harvest the wheat.”

Sanders says lot of producers who are chomping at the bit, hoping for some dry days so we can get it out in the field.

“If you look at the past harvest dates, in the southern part of the state, we’re usually done about a week into June but we really haven’t gotten started yet this year,” Sanders said.

Bushong says with harvest being later than normal, some double crop acres are going to be delayed as well.

Sanders indicated wet soil conditions are also going to give producers problems getting the crop out of the field because it is so wet underneath all that straw and residue.

“This could be a long harvest if it keeps this up, but I learned through the dry years to never complain about rain,” Sanders said. “However sometimes too much rain is just about as bad as no rain.”

Even with so many cloudy, wet days in a row, Sanders is hopeful for a decent crop if harvest can just get started.

“The wheat is going to be good if we can get it out,” Sanders explained. “There’s still a lot of yield potential out there, but the wheat probably won’t be as good as it was a month ago.”

Bushong said for the most part everyone is just sitting back and waiting to get the combines out in the field and see if Mother Nature gives farmers a break.

Sanders says this year has definitely been out of the norm, but with all the challenges wheat growers face on a yearly basis, it does not seem as outrageous of a situation.

“I don’t know what’s normal anymore,” he said. “We go from one extreme to another.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at [email protected].