Why Winter Wheat is at Risk in the Great Plains

February 14, 2017 02:42 PM
winter wheat

If the ground keeps warming up beneath their hooves, cows in the southern U.S. Great Plains are going to have to move over and let the wheat start growing.

The mild February weather has warmed up soils to the point where wheat plants could start shaking off their winter dormancy. The prospect means grazing cattle need to find other fields and crop risks rise if the cold suddenly returns or rain doesn’t show up.

“If it gets too cold, too fast, especially if there’s not time for the crop to re-acclimate, it can cause some damage,” said Romulo Lollato, a wheat and forage specialist at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.

Once temperatures at wheat’s so-called crown level, about an inch deep (2.5 centimeters), rise to 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) the plants start to shake off their winter slumber, said David Marburger, a small grains specialist at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Readings have surpassed that threshold across much of Oklahoma and Texas, as well as parts of Missouri and are nearing the 40s across parts of Kansas, Mesonet data show.

Across the Plains, wheat crops are about a week or two ahead of normal, Marburger said. Kansas is the country’s largest grower of the winter variety, with Texas and Oklahoma tied for second, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.

Still, winter has a little more than a month to go, so cold could return.

“That tends to happen more often than not,” said Andrew Orrison, a forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

Temperatures across much of the region will actually cool from the all-time highs that recently swept through, but won’t become downright frigid, Orrison said. Over the weekend, new daily records were set in five states across the region, including 94 in Wichita Falls, Texas; 89 in Oklahoma City and 82 in Joplin, Missouri, according to the National Weather Service.

“It is somewhat unusual in February to have temperatures peak like that,” Orrison said. “We’re sort of seeing a spring-like pattern here in February.”

Part of the reason temperatures will fall again is because rain is coming, a welcome relief to the parched southern Plains.

About 96 percent of Oklahoma is abnormally dry or in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor in Lincoln, Nebraska. About 65 percent of Kansas and 89 percent of Missouri face the same challenges.

“We were able to catch quite a bit of rain in mid-January,” Marburger said. “It’s warming up now, and we haven’t had rain since. Those varieties that are going to be coming out of dormancy, they’re going to need a lot of water.”

Still the plants probably aren’t facing imminent stress, said Joel Widenor, an agriculture meteorologist with Commodity Weather Group LLC in Bethesda, Maryland. March precipitation could carry them along.

In addition to the wheat, Widenor said temperatures have risen so high through February some farmers along the Gulf of Mexico coast are thinking of planting corn.

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