After Brutal Winter, Southern Plains Face Tough Spring

February 15, 2011 09:49 AM

More rough weather is forecast for winter wheat on the Southern Plains, after the crop got off to a dry start last fall and suffered through record-setting cold early this month.

“Wheat is such a hardy plant,” says Kim Anderson, ag economist at Oklahoma State University. “They say you have to kill it seven times before you harvest it.” But tough as the plants may be, winter wheat on the southern plains requires favorable moisture and temperatures this spring after dry weather and extreme cold during fall and winter.
At the end of January, USDA reports showed winter wheat conditions had reached poor to very poor for 52 percent of the crop in Texas, 40% in Oklahoma, and 37% in Kansas.
Even in late January, growers still had some optimism that their wheat would be okay if their fields got some moisture, says USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey. “Then they got slammed with a plunge into the minus 10 degrees to minus 20 degrees range.” Snow cover in much of the region ranged from none to one or two inches. That much snow can provide insulation, says Rippey. “But it depends on the blowing. This is very individualized from field to field. You have to look at how the field is oriented.”
Northwestern Oklahoma wheat fields need moisture in the next 10 to 15 days, says Roger Gribble, Oklahoma State University agronomist for the region north of Interstate 40 and west of Interstate 35.
“We were at temperatures that will cause some damage,” he says, and the extent of the damage will be evident after a week of warmer temperatures. “We need a little moisture to work with,” says Gribble. “We have some, but it won't last long when the weather warms up.”
Temperatures rose into the 70s in southern Nebraska last weekend and USDA's Rippey expects the 80s this week in parts of Oklahoma and Texas.
“That's not good,” says Rippey. From a record-setting low of minus 31 last week, Oklahoma temperatures will be up more than 100 degrees this week. “Some of the producers who have been wondering about how the wheat will come through winter may find out this week,” he says. “With temperatures that high, they should see some growth.”
But this week is a teaser for spring in the southern plains. Stormier, cooler weather will return next week, when a Pacific storm likely will track from California across Kansas and Nebraska, dropping most of its precipitation north of that path. “It really doesn't bode well for Oklahoma and Texas,” says Rippey. Wheat in Nebraska is already in better shape than the crop farther south, and it likely will get more precipitation in the next week. Another storm system next week probably will follow a similar track. One or two more storms are likely in late February and early March, but those are too far out to guess their path, he says.
Fred Gesser, senior global meteorologist for private weather forecaster Planalytics, says that beyond spring, he expects a challenging season in the southern plains. “They will continue to have problems,” says Gesser. “We're looking at a dry bias, dryer than normal for much of Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle through the growing season.”
But before that, says Gesser, “We're not done with the potential for a freeze.” He expects about a week of above-normal temperatures now will remove snow cover while more arctic air starts moving across the Canadian prairies. “We still have to deal with another couple of shots of cold weather coming down in March,” he says.


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