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Spring Into Spring Wheat

March 9, 2013
By: Ben Potter, Social Media and Innovation Editor google + 
wheat in the field

Drought persists but another strong season still possible

The U.S. drought monitor shows a softening drought footprint in areas of the U.S., but unfortunately much of the High Plains and other prime spring wheat production areas are still plagued with severe water deficits, says Steve Mercer, vice president of communications with U.S. Wheat Associates.

Farmers will be more dependent on in-season rainfall this year  than 2012

"Unfortunately, long-range forecasts do not anticipate much change and the lack of precipitation expected this winter threatens the Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming wheat crops," he says. "The forecast does not look promising for spring wheat growers in North Dakota, Minnesota or Montana where dry conditions to the east and south settled in this winter. So far, the weather has been kinder to spring and winter wheat growers in the Pacific Northwest and most of the eastern soft red winter production regions."

Don’t panic, yet. Despite this past year’s drought and this year’s winter precipitation (or lack thereof), Extension specialists in the wheat belt are not overly concerned—yet.

"A lot will depend on what precipitation comes in early spring," says Jochum Wiersma, Extension agronomist and small grains specialist with the University of Minnesota. "Our fingers are crossed for a recharge."

Wiersma says he will also keep an eye to the south as the season starts. Much of the disease and insect pressures tend to migrate northward from Kansas and South Dakota, he says.

"We’re just going to have to wait and see what problems eventually come our way," he says. The 2012 drought did little to deter near-record yields in many wheat fields, says Joel Ransom, Extension agronomist with North Dakota State University. Still, those high yields came with a price.

"We had a good crop, but it was achieved by taking out most of the moisture in the soil," he says.

Wiersma agrees: "We’re at or near zero right now. We’re bone dry. A 5" to 6" recharge would be wonderful."

Ransom says wheat typically displaces around 3' to 3½' worth of soil moisture. Some winter snowfall to-date will add back some of what’s needed, but not enough so far. That means farmers will be more dependent on in-season rainfall than they were last year.

The winter weather packs another weapon in farmers’ favor—cold snaps that can knock out overwintering pests and therefore limit crop exposure the following season. Ransom says a solid week of bitter cold weather in late January likely helped control wheat curl mites as well as aphids, which both can vector economically important viral wheat diseases.

"The colder the weather, the higher the mortality, typically," Ransom says. "It’s been cold enough to do its duty."

As the countdown to planting season continues, Ransom is optimistic despite the dry period.

"If we get some good rain events, we should be fine," he says.

Upside to Drought: Wheat Midge Levels Low

The bad news: Drought can be extremely hard on farmers. The good news: Drought is also extremely hard on wheat midge. Soil samples in North Dakota show historically low levels of this damaging wheat pest.

This population decrease can be attributed to the drought, says North Dakota State University Extension entomologist Janet Knodel. Hot, dry conditions could have prevented wheat midge larvae from dropping out of wheat heads during late summer. The larvae that did drop out of the head would have encountered hard, dry soils that were harder to burrow into and avoid exposure to natural predators.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - March 2013

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