U.S. winter wheat faces significant risk from cold snap

It was a decidedly unhappy New Year for many hard red winter wheat growers in the United States.

Temperatures plunged as low as -40 C Jan. 1 in portions of the country’s winter wheat growing areas, causing what some weather analysts believe is widespread winterkill.

Nick Vita, meteorologist with Commodity Weather Group, said the winterkill threshold is usually around -20 C, but this year they have reduced it to -18 C because an extremely dry fall led to poor crop establishment.

“We’re worried about some winterkill that encompassed about one-third of the national hard red winter wheat acreage,” he said.

Snow amounts are variable in the winter wheat growing states and so was the damage. For instance, crops in Nebraska have sufficient snow cover, while crops in many parts of Kansas were susceptible.

Temperatures in Kansas, which is the top winter wheat producing state, ranged from -20 to -25 C.

“In such an event you can sometimes see 10 to 20 percent losses across the belt,” said Vita.

Radiant Solutions said snow cover was sufficient to protect crops from damage in the northern Plains and northern Midwest.

However, there was “widespread winterkill” in the central and southern Plains and southern Midwest where snow cover was thin.

Radiant said there was damage to crops in southeastern Colorado, much of Kansas, far northern Oklahoma, central Missouri, southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana.

“Damage occurred in about a quarter of the hard red wheat belt in the central Plains,” Don Keeney, senior agricultural meteorologist for Radiant Solutions, said in a news release.

Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer of Kansas Wheat, said the chilly temperatures have certainly drawn a lot of attention but he believes it is premature to be assessing damage.

“Hey, it’s certainly cold and it’s certainly dry, but the crop is dormant right now,” he said.

“We’re not going to really know anything until the crop breaks dormancy in March.”

Gilpin said dryness is probably a bigger concern than winterkill in the winter wheat growing area.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows that much of the hard red winter wheat growing region is experiencing moderate to severe drought.

The combination of drought and the cold weather snap has led to disappointing crop ratings.

Just 37 percent of the winter wheat crop in Kansas was rated good to excellent as of Jan. 3. That is among the five lowest ratings Gilpin has ever seen.

However, he said spring rain will ultimately determine the fate of the crop once it breaks dormancy, so it is a little early to get too concerned about yield prospects.

Analysts are confident winter wheat acres will be smaller than last year, which was the second smallest crop in a century.

Gilpin agreed with that assessment.

“There just hasn’t been that market signal or incentive for encouraging producers to plant hard red winter wheat,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is scheduled to release its Winter Wheat and Canola Seedings report Jan. 12.

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