Warm Weather Has Yet to Awaken Wheat Crop

If we didn’t know better, we would think it is spring here in Kansas. The first week of January, daytime temperatures soared past 50 degrees, and as we head into the second week of the New Year, forecasters are calling for daytime temperatures to reach at least 45 degrees for the next 10 days. 

In Kansas, the normal high for January is about 37 degrees.

Wheat farmers throughout the state have expressed concern about these mild temperatures. Winter wheat is supposed to lie dormant during the winter, and warm weather can cause the crop to “break dormancy,” begin growing and lose its winterhardiness. And we all know that winter weather – cold temperatures and snow – will come sometime this winter.

Jim Shroyer, Research and Extension agronomist at Kansas State University, says that despite these temperatures, winter wheat still has winterhardiness and can withstand colder weather.

“As long as nighttime temperatures are below freezing for the most part, wheat will retain its winterhardiness – although not quite the level of winterhardiness it would have in a ‘normal’ winter,” Shroyer says.

An occasional period of 1 to 3 days where nighttime temperatures do not get below freezing will not cause any significant loss of winterhardiness. If nighttime temperatures consistently stay above freezing for a week or so, however, there will be some loss of winterhardiness, he says.

In winter wheat, the process of gaining and losing winterhardiness is gradual. Temperatures fluctuate most years as winter begins and ends, and the winterhardiness level of wheat tends to ratchet up and down with the temperatures. After a warm spell in winter, wheat will lose some winterhardiness – but wheat will regain its winterhardiness as temperatures get cold again. Every time this happens, however, the wheat will lose some winterhardiness. The peak level of winterhardiness in wheat occurs when temperatures get cold and stay cold all winter. Wheat that greens up and then goes back into dormancy will not have quite the same level of winterhardiness as wheat that remains dormant all winter.

So the bottom line is that wheat in Kansas should still have an acceptable level of winterhardiness at this point. Nighttime temperatures have been cold enough to that wheat to retain its winterhardiness.

Shroyer says a bigger concern for wheat in general is the problem of dry subsoils.

“Topsoil moisture is generally good to adequate in most of Kansas right now, and this has producers optimistic about the prospects for this year’s wheat crop. But subsoils began the fall in very dry conditions, and this has not yet changed,” he says.

In the August 26, 2011 issue of the Agronomy e-Update (No. 314), an article explained that about 12 inches of rain would typically be needed to truly replenish soil moisture in the driest areas of the state. We are a long way from having those soils replenished.

“There is definitely more reason for optimism about this year’s wheat crop than there was at planting time,” he explains. “But the dry subsoils could be a problem later this spring if we don’t get more rainfall. Also, if nighttime temperatures in January and February are consistently above freezing for several days in a row, the wheat could lose much of its winterhardiness and be susceptible to cold injury from a sudden drop in temperatures. At the moment, this is not a concern, however.”

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