Critical time for U.S. wheat as drought threatens

Farmers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas are hoping for relief this week from persistent drought conditions that threaten yields in many of the United States’ most productive winter wheat growing areas.

Sources at the U.S. Department of Agriculture say lack of rainfall since late October along with extremely low topsoil moisture conditions are heightening concerns about lost yield potential and abandonment of winter wheat acres in key states.

Depending on temperatures and location, the U.S. winter wheat crop normally breaks from dormancy in late February or early- to mid-March.

Rainfall is needed either before the dormancy period ends or shortly after to avoid significant yield losses, said Brad Rippey, a meteorologist with the USDA.

Rippey said southern production areas will need rain in the next two to four weeks to avoid significant losses.

In general, more northerly growing areas are in better shape and may not require rain for four to six weeks.

“We do have grave concerns for the (winter wheat) crop across the southern half of the Great Plains and that area encompasses a significant portion of the U.S. winter wheat crop,” Rippey said last week.

“At this moment, we have approximately 45 percent of the winter wheat production area considered to be in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.”

Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas typically account for almost 40 percent of the red winter wheat produced in the United States each year.

The U.S. Drought Monitor provides weekly updates on drought conditions affecting major crops and key production areas.

In its most recent weekly report, it said 100 percent of the winter wheat crop in Oklahoma is facing moderate, severe or extreme drought conditions, along with 99 percent in Texas, 72 percent in Kansas and 42 percent in Colorado.

Rippey said production concerns related to lack of moisture have been compounded in some areas by late establishment last fall and extreme temperature fluctuations over the past few months.

“We’ve had some very harsh temperature swings, ranging from sub-zero degrees Fahrenheit (-20 C or lower) and we’ve also seen temperatures up (to 20 C or higher).”

Although parts of the southern United States received moderate to heavy rainfall in the seven-day period ending Feb. 13, extreme drought conditions expanded across northern Texas, the USDA said in its latest summary released Feb. 15.

Severe drought conditions also expanded across central Texas and the drought situation remained largely unchanged in Oklahoma “with rain sorely needed as warmer weather begins to stimulate the growth of crops and vegetation.”

In northern Texas and much of western Oklahoma, little if any precipitation has fallen over the past 90 to 120 days.

At Amarillo, Texas, growers have gone without rain for more than 125 days, shattering the previous mark of 75 days in records dating back to 1892.

“The lack of rainfall is affecting winter wheat, pastures, pond levels, and stream flows,” the USDA summary said.

“Impacts will rapidly escalate if rain does not materialize soon.”

Romulo Lollato, a wheat and forage crop extension specialist at Kansas State University, said the next few weeks are critical.

Kansas typically accounts for more than 20 percent of U.S. winter wheat production.

“For now, while the crop is still dormant, I think we’re not really losing too much yield … yet,” Lollato said.

“But the next two to three weeks will be really crucial. Once it starts warming up in late February or early March, if we don’t get rain, I think we’ll see the crop go backwards really, really quickly because we really have no moisture in the root zone.”

Lollato said the Kansas wheat crop got off to a slow start last fall, as planting efforts were delayed by rain in late September and early October.

Since then, however, much of the state has received little or no rainfall.

Delayed seeding last fall affected establishment, giving crops less time than normal to develop root systems and tillers before the onset of winter.

Lollato said many Kansas wheat producers are delaying fertilizer applications until they receive rainfall.

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