Don’t be hasty to reseed winter wheat: agrologist

Conduct spring assessment | Don’t try to determine if there is damage before mid-May

Unseasonably warm weather in February provided Paul Thoroughgood with the opportunity to dig up some of his winter wheat plants and inspect them for damage.

He removed the plants from a field on his farm south of Moose Jaw, Sask., that hadn’t received a flake of snow and stuck them in a plastic Tupperware dish containing a combination of potting soil and dirt from the field. The plants started growing and looked green and healthy.

“The crop is still alive in about as bad a place as I could find in my field,” said Thoroughgood, regional agrologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada.

He intends to take the plants to farm shows to help dispel the belief that lack of snow cover on the Canadian Prairies has killed off this year’s winter wheat crop.

Ducks Unlimited has been inundated with calls from concerned producers who fear the crop is lost. Some of them said that industry agronomists have told them to start booking seed to replace their winter wheat come spring.

“I’d hate to see people who finally got some of that wet ground seeded last fall go out and do something drastic to it,” said Thoroughgood.

Rob Graf, a winter wheat breeder with Agriculture Canada, said this has been an extremely unusual winter with next to no snow cover across much of the Prairies. Fortunately, there has been only one short cold snap.

“The good news is that we didn’t stay very cold very long,” he said. “I think the crops generally are OK.”

A bigger concern for growers in his region of southern Alberta is the possibility of desiccation injury. It has been so unseasonably warm that some of the winter wheat has broken dormancy and started to grow.

Roots that start respiring need water, but the soil is either frozen or too dry to properly nourish the plants. As a result, they will die.

Graf stressed that growers should be patient with their winter wheat this spring. A crop that looks thin because of winterkill or other injury can fill in due to the crop’s exceptional ability to tiller.

“It’s amazing what that crop can do. It does recover,” he said.

Only three of 20 prairie locations with WeatherBug soil probes indicated soil temperatures low enough to cause winterkill during the one brief cold spell: Arm River and Alameda in Saskatchewan and Somerset, Man.

Farmers in those areas may want to have a Plan B, but even they need to first conduct a spring assessment.

That is accomplished by removing a few plants on a warm day, rinsing off the dirt and placing them on a moist paper towel in a warm room with plenty of light for at least part of the day.

The plant is damaged if the crown tissue, which is the thickened part of the stem below the soil surface, quickly turns brown. If it remains white, the plant is healthy and will begin to produce roots within a few days.

Winter wheat fields should be assessed only after two-thirds of spring seeding is complete, during the latter half of May.

“Don’t go out and make a rash decision on April 15 because the crop is not going to look good then,” said Thoroughgood.

Experienced winter wheat growers know not to panic, but there are plenty of first-time producers.

He wants those inexperienced growers to know it is unlikely that there has been an extreme winterkill event, although there is undoubtedly isolated damage.

His farm isn’t far from the Arm River WeatherBug location, yet the crop looks fine despite the cold temperatures and lack of snow cover.

Winter wheat has been a good economic performer for growers the last two years, and in some cases the alternative is planting back-to-back canola crops, which isn’t an agronomically sound practice.

“It’s great to have that Plan B in mind, but don’t employ the solution before you know you have a problem.”

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