After a late-season freeze and even later-season record-breaking snowstorm, the wheat crop in western Kansas will without a doubt see a reduction in yield, but the chances of an average wheat crop this year aren’t completely shot yet.
A.J. Foster, area agronomist at the K-State Southwest Research-Extension Center, said that for many farmers and agricultural specialists, it’s a "wait-and-see" period right now.
"It’s two-fold," Foster said. "One is the freeze and assessing the freeze damage, and the second is with the snow and assessing stem breakage caused from the snow."
Foster said agricultural consultants in areas affected by Winter Storm Ursa in the western third of the state are reporting estimates that suggest stem breakage occurred at an average rate of 15 to 20 percent.
The heavy snowfall was concentrated in the far western portion of Kansas, with parts of Grant, Haskell, Kearny, Hamilton, Greeley and Wichita counties seeing 18 to 24 inches. With snow still in the fields and wheat pressed against the ground, it remains to be seen how much damage has actually been done.
Alec Horton, head agronomist of Horton Feed Services in Leoti, said there is still potential for an "average" crop this year.
"I wouldn’t say we have the potential for a great crop or even above average crop," he said. "I’d say right now, if most of the wheat stand back up, we’d still have a chance at an average year’s crop. We’d just have to wait and see how much the loss is."
Assessing the damage
Horton said a better idea of the wheat crop loss would be discernible in a week. He said it is still difficult to tell if the wheat is bent, kinked or broken.
"We know that we will have a yield loss," Horton said, adding that his initial estimates for losses on his crop are around 20 to 30 percent. "It could be a little less, or it could be a little more. The snow is so heavy, and it was lying on the wheat for so long."
At 24, Horton said this is his first time dealing with a snowstorm of this caliber as a farmer. He said he has contended with hail, which also causes stem breakage problems for wheat, but explained that intense snowfall and the weight of the snow for an extended period creates additional complications and, "we just don’t know what kind of effect it’s going to have on it."
Against the odds
In the month of April, 15 daily snowfall records were broken in different parts of western Kansas, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Some of those records had been held for as long as 117 years in locations such as Elkhart, Tribune and Hays. Centenarian records also were broken in Healy and Utica.
Mary Knapp, assistant state climatologist, said the snowfall in late April would result in at least 1.5 to 2 inches of precipitation for crops. She noted that Tribune received 22 inches of snow from the storm, breaking a record tracing back to the 1800s.
"What really is going to impact that wheat yield is what stage the wheat was at, how much bending there was, how much lodging there was, how much bounces back from that, how quickly this snow melts off — because that will impact how much damage there was to it," Knapp said.
Knapp said she has heard reports of wheat yield losses as high as 45 percent, "and if the wheat was in the flowering stage, it may be a total loss."
Foster said the wheat crop in southwest Kansas was primarily in the jointing or heading phase. He said wheat is an "unbelievably resilient" crop and may yet compensate for incurred damages with secondary tillers, "so even though you may get broken stems, it’s not all doomed because it depends on the stage."
The wheat crop’s success also will depend on how much grain fills the heads, and some of that will be determined by temperature and moisture later in the season, Foster said, explaining that wheat grows in the fields for approximately 200 days while "facing all the elements," making it a "pretty hardy, resilient crop."
"As agronomists, we constantly say you just don’t bet against wheat," Foster said. "It’s hard to bet against — it finds ways to recover a lot of times."
Foster noted that wheat becomes more susceptible to the elements as time goes on and it approaches the flowering stage. He said the storm would have impacted mature wheat crops more drastically than others.
The K-State Research and Extension Office issued an agronomy report on Monday outlining the anticipated effects of Winter Storm Ursa’s snowfall on the Kansas wheat crop.
The report noted that anywhere from 1 to 21 inches of snowfall in western Kansas affected roughly 40 percent of the state’s wheat acreage.
The storm brought with it below-freezing temperatures ranging from 27 to 31 degrees that were sustained for extended periods of time, the report said. The below-freezing temperatures lasted as long as 21 hours in Wallace County from April 29 to April 30, and 24 hours in Tribune from April 29 to Monday.
The report also indicated that the chance for secondary tillers to emerge could be hampered or prevented by the continual nature of the storm conditions. From April 29 to Monday, below-freezing temperatures occurred on three consecutive nights with wind speeds reaching a minimum average of 40 mph, and reports of gusts reaching 55 mph or more.
These conditions lasted more than six consecutive hours in western Kansas and especially in southwest Kansas. The report stated that "three consecutive nights with below-freezing temperatures reduces the chances that wheat can escape freeze injury by having tillers that emerged at different times or wheat flowers within the same head pollinating at different times."
Mature crops compromised
The report anticipates larger yield losses in southwest Kansas due to a combination of floret sterility and stem breakage in fields that were near or at the flowering period, known as anthesis. Prognoses for the northwest corner of the state, where the crop would have mostly been at the boot stage, were more optimistic.
As of Monday, the wheat crop in southwest Kansas into central Kansas and parts of northeast Kansas would be at the boot or flowering stage. In counties such as Lane, Scott, Wichita and Greeley, wheat most likely would have been at the flag leaf emergence or boot stage. The wheat crop in east-central and south-central Kansas are at the flowering or watering ripe stage, and the southeast Kansas wheat crop has largely already advanced to the watering ripe or milk phase.
"If you get over into central or south-central Kansas into southeastern Kansas, the wheat is much more advanced than it is out there in the western plains," Knapp said. "They’ve got wheat that’s already in the milk stage in southeast Kansas, which is heading for home as far as the yield potential, whereas there’s wheat in northwest Kansas that’s just beginning to root."
Predicting the harvest
The 2017 Wheat Quality Council’s Hard Winter Wheat Tour across Kansas concluded Thursday, and a subsequent report indicated that an average of 46.1 bushels of wheat per acre are projected for the surveyed territory spanning from Wichita to Manhattan.
Factored into the final estimates were disease, snow damage and freeze damage that might eliminate wheat yields in some areas.
The official tour projection for hard red winter wheat to be harvested in Kansas clocked in at 281,707,913 bushels. According to the report, if even that projection is realized, it will still amount to 185 million bushels less than last year’s crop.
Numbers are calculated based on the average of estimated predictions from tour participants who gathered information from 469 fields across the state. The report indicated that the number of stops in the tour was reduced significantly from 655 fields during the 2016 tour, due in large part to snow cover in the western third of the state where tour scouts were unable to take calculations.
"The tour provides a formula for us to use, and a component of that formula is row space and height of wheat plant and being able to count the number of stalks or heads in one foot," said Aaron Harries, vice present of research and operations for Kansas Wheat. "In the area where snow had flattened the wheat, we’re just not able to do that. So, it was our decision not to try to estimate yields on those fields."
Not over yet
While the Kansas wheat crop may have suffered a left hook and a sucker punch to the gut after what was otherwise a fairly good growing season, Foster said many assessments are "a lot more optimistic than what we initially thought."
Horton certainly hasn’t given up. He advised wheat farmers not to "jump the gun" on tearing out acres of wheat, advising them to instead give it a week to 10 days before "making any hard decisions."
"By that time, you’d be able to tell if the stem is kinked, if it’s either going to die or if it’s going to survive, how much of the wheat is going to go ahead and rot and die or how much is actually going to be able to pull through it," he said. "Don’t be too hasty to tear out this wheat crop and plant something else back into it just yet."
Contact Mark Minton at email@example.com.