Freezes, drought will impact wheat yields

Wheat plants show leaf burn from freeze damage. By itself, this damage is only cosmetic, but experts think spring freezes could impact yields. Romulo Lollato/Kansas State University

By Sam Jack

Spring freezes, including the freezing weather over the weekend, are combining with sustained drought conditions to create a challenging environment for wheat crops locally and across the state.

A Monday report from the USDA said that nearly half of Kansas’ winter wheat is in poor or very poor condition. Forty-two percent of the state’s wheat is in fair condition, while 11 percent is in good condition and just 1 percent is in excellent shape.

Agricultural Extension agent Zach Simon said he spent Monday examining crops in Sedgwick County following the weekend lows.

“The cold weather we sustained last week did cause some damage,” he said. “I found a few heads with a little bit of freeze damage already, because the heads are anywhere from about ground level to a couple inches above the soil surface. Those head sizes have already been determined, and they won’t change, but what really affects the yields is how much they’re able to fill.”

Sumner County Extension agricultural agent Randy Hein said that some local stands of wheat are looking thin.

“They didn’t get a lot of good root growth, development and tillering last fall, and then it was pretty dry through the winter,” he said. “Some of it, I’m amazed that it did hang on.”

The northwestern two-thirds of Sedgwick County, along with the western quarter of Sumner County, are in “Extreme Drought,” according to the United States Drought Monitor, indicating a potential for major losses of crops and pastures, along with an elevated fire risk. The remainders of both counties are experiencing “Severe Drought.”

Despite the discouraging weather conditions, Simon still holds out hope for a decent crop.

“If we start getting some rain here really soon, and if it remains cool, with low disease pressure, we could get some decent yields. But I don’t think we’ll see anything above average this year. I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think it’s shaping up that way,” Simon said.

At this point, Hein said, most farmers have little to do other than wait and hope.

“They had a hard time getting top dressing done, because we had windy weather for that, but I would guess they all got done what they wanted to do,” he said. “Probably the next thing they’ll want to do, as we get closer to harvest and the flag leaves fully emerge, is to put some fungicide on to combat rust. Some of them may also spray before they harvest to kill weeds. I think right now, farmers’ biggest concern is to get their corn planted.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the April 19 print editions of The Times-Sentinel and the Star-Argosy.