Man. growers told to give winter wheat recovery time

Warm temperatures in February saw plants sitting in water, which turned to ice when the mercury plummeted in March

Many eastern and southwestern Manitoba winter wheat growers are grimacing as they look at fields of dead crops, victims of freakish winter weather.

However, Jake Davidson, executive director of Winter Cereals Canada, cautioned growers to give damaged winter wheat crops a chance. If they’re still alive, they can bounce back surprisingly well.

“If it’s dead it’s dead, but if it’s greening up, it could be OK. It fills in,” Davidson said May 11.

“What some people think is a bad winter wheat crop can still yield more than a good spring wheat crop.”

Winterkill usually happens when fields lose their snow cover, crops become exposed and freezing reaches down into the soil and kills the dormant wheat plants.

That often happens in March, when snow cover is disappearing but cold snaps are still common.

However, this year most of the damage was caused by a different phenomenon, Davidson said. Warm snaps in January and February caused snow to melt, which flooded the surface and saturated the root zone. Freezing temperatures then returned and killed plants.

“It’s not the kind of winterkill we’ve been spending hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars in research … for winter hardiness,” he said.

Industry and provincial government officials are guessing that 35 to 85 percent of crops were damaged in problem areas east of Winnipeg, depending on the field. It will be weeks before crop insurance assessors are able to get an accurate sense of the damage.

Davidson said farmers should turn their attention to seeding spring crops and give the winter wheat crops a chance. They can make the big decision about halfway through seeding spring crops on whether to re-seed.

This particular year of bad results for some farmers probably won’t put them off, Davidson said. Winter wheat growers like the crop and know that winter occasionally causes a wipe-out.

The bigger concern these days is farmers abandoning small grains altogether to focus on corn and soybeans. 

“We’re turning into a bit of a corn-soybean economy,” said Davidson.

“We’ve got an Iowa syndrome.”

He speculated that soybeans will eventually face their own problems with a September frost.

That might protect the acres dedicated to winter wheat on the Prairies and might even hand some back.

“Suddenly you’ll see everybody panic and the following year’s soybean acres will kerplunk and everybody will go back to something else,” said Davidson.

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