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Winter survival of poorly developed wheat

Richard Snell
Barton County Extension Agent

Conditions remain dry in many areas of western and central Kansas this year. Where we had rain in the earlier fall, in northern Barton County, the wheat looks good, however, south of Highway 4 and west of the Highway 183, not so much.

Where this is the case, wheat development has typically been poor. Will this make some wheat fields more susceptible more winter die-off or weakening than usual?

The following are some of the factors to consider when evaluating the outlook for winter survival of wheat:* How well has the wheat cold hardened?

When temperatures through fall and early winter gradually get colder, that helps wheat plants develop good winter-hardiness. When temperatures remain unusually warm late into the fall (which can lead to excessive vegetative growth) then suddenly drop into the low teens, plants are less likely to have had time to cold harden properly and will be more susceptible to winter-kill. This past fall, temperatures fell off gradually. As a result, the wheat should be adequately cold hardened in most cases.

* How well developed is the root system?

Good top growth of wheat doesn’t necessarily indicate good root development. Poor root development is a concern where conditions have been dry. Where wheat plants have a good crown root system and two or more tillers, they will tolerate the cold better. If plants are poorly developed going into winter, with very few secondary roots and no tillers, they will be more susceptible to winter-kill or desiccation. Poor development of secondary roots may not be readily apparent unless the plants are pulled up and examined. If plants are poorly developed, it may be due to dry soils, poor seed-to-soil contact, very low pH, insect damage, or other causes.

* How cold is the soil at the crown level?

This depends on snow cover and moisture levels in the soil. Winter-kill is possible if soil temperatures at the crown level (about one inch deep) get down into the single digits. If there is at least an inch of snow on the ground, the wheat will be protected and soil temperatures will usually remain above the critical level. Also, if the soil has good moisture, it’s possible that soil temperatures at the crown level may not reach the critical level even in the absence of snow cover. But if the soil is dry and there is no snow cover, there may be the potential for winter-kill, especially on exposed slopes or in low-lying areas, depending on the condition of the plants. Air temperatures below -10 degrees can certainly reduce soil temperatures below critical levels when the soil is dry and there is no snow cover.

At this point I am still optimistic because we had good snow cover when we had our coldest weather, down below zero. Time will tell.


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