The cold can kill, but you still have options
For the nation’s winter wheat farmers, the 2013/14 winter season has produced two things in great abundance—subzero cold weather and anxiety.
First, the good news: Opportunities for profit took a turn for the better, as wheat moved back above $6 due to market uncertainty and volatility in the Ukraine, says Paul Georgy, president and CEO of Allendale Inc.
"Grain futures are sharply higher," he says. "The tension between Russia and Ukraine has traders concerned that exports out of the Black Sea Region will be disrupted. Weather conditions in [Brazil’s] Mato Grosso and lack of cancellation confirmation is providing fuel for the buying."
The not-so-good news: A colder-than-normal winter in the U.S. has left farmers worried about winterkill and if they have a diminished crop to market. Now is the time to determine the extent of winterkill damage in your fields and consider spring steps that will maximize the remainder of the season.
Damage can begin to occur when crown depth soil temperatures reach 10ºF and colder, depending on the variety’s winter hardiness and a handful of other factors, such as length of crown exposure at these temperatures, soil moisture, plant condition, growth stage and snow cover.
Bitter cold is not the only winter threat, either. If a layer of ice forms on the soil surface, it can suffocate the plants beneath. Another process known as "heaving" does exactly what its name suggests—repeated freezing and thawing can literally push plants right out of the ground. While farmers can’t avoid these occurrences, they must remain on the lookout when scouting their fields in the spring.
Utah State University Extension offers two easy ways to check for winterkill damage. First, dig up some plants, pot them and bring them inside to warm up. Plants that don’t respond to the warmer conditions probably are suffering from winterkill injury.
Another method is to bag up crown samples in a plastic bag and bring them indoors. Severely damaged crown tissue will quickly turn brown within a day or two; healthy tissue will remain white.
The magic number. Ducks Unlimited agronomist Blake Vander Vorst says while there is no magic plant population goal, having eight winter wheat plants per square foot should instill some confidence that you’ll finish the season profitably, barring any major weather calamities in the spring.
"At least eight plants per square foot is ideal, but four or five could still be profitable," he says. "You just need to get nitrogen on early. You need to do everything you can to generate tillers on the remaining stand."
Most universities recommend enhancing a thin stand by applying spring nitrogen at the onset of tillering to boost the number of tillers and the potential number of heads. For example, adequate stands would benefit from a 25-lb. nitrogen application. For poorer stands, bump that amount up to 50 lb.
On the other hand, applying too much nitrogen can be just as detrimental as not adding enough. Excessive nitrogen can encourage excess vegetative growth, thereby increasing the possibility of lodging and upping the chance for disease potential due to a dense canopy. A fungicide application might also be a smart move for those worried about winterkill.
"You might want to include a fungicide with your herbicide application to protect tillers and keep them healthy, especially in wheat-on-wheat acres," Vander Vorst says.