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Despite recent rains, planting winter wheat now could result in ‘catastrophic’ failures

Despite recent rains, planting winter wheat now could result in ‘catastrophic’ failures

People rushing to plant winter wheat or pasture may be setting themselves up for an expensive failure. Soil moisture is poor. Specialist recommends “wait and see.”

Many parts of Texas received from a trace to 4 inches of rain, but as welcome as the moisture was, people rushing to plant winter wheat or pasture may be setting themselves up for an expensive failure, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service agronomist.

From Sept. 13 through Sept. 20, much of the state east of Interstate 45 received from 1 to 2 inches of rain, according the National Weather Service. Parts of the Panhandle and North Texas received similar amounts, as did San Antonio and surrounding counties. The Coastal Bend and South Texas areas had large pockets of 3 to 4 inches of rain.

But even where 4 inches was received, the deep soil moisture profile is so poor that, without regular rains, early planting of winter wheat could result in "catastrophic" failures, said Dr. Larry Redmon, AgriLife Extension state forage specialist, College Station.

"The soil is so devoid of moisture right now that even where there was 4 inches, we've only wetted up the top part of that profile," Redmon said. "If people plant now, they're likely to get that seed to germinate, but there's not going to be any moisture down below for that plant."

Redmon's warning applies not just to winter wheat but to winter pastures as well.

"We see this a lot with winter annuals," Redmon said. "We'll get just enough rain to germinate, get the plant up, but then we don't get enough rain for the plant to survive."

When there are moisture reserves deep in the soil profile, plants will survive dry spells because they can tap down into it. But with no deep moisture, it's going to take regular rains to keep the top layer of soil wet and maintain new plantings, he said.

A lot of people may know these basic facts and still plant, Redmon noted. Hay supplies are nearly non-existent because of the extended drought, so many producers are in dire need of forages to maintain their cattle through fall and winter, and there is going to be the tendency to optimistically gamble on more rain coming.

Big gamble

"And certainly that's their call, but they're gambling they're going to not only get more rain this week, but also the next, and the week thereafter," he said. "With the forecast that La Nina is supposed to strengthen, which bodes for a dry winter and spring, I'm thinking that's not a good gamble."

Redmon recommended producers wait a bit to see what the weather brings. The planting window for winter wheat extends to late October and early November in the Lubbock or Amarillo area. Farther south, into Central Texas, producers can plant as late as Christmas or New Year's Day and still have a chance to make a crop, he said. After that, there are other choices besides wheat and the usual winter annuals.

"If we get much later than that, then wheat may not be the best choice (for grazing)," he said. "Maybe ryegrass becomes a better player than wheat or oats or rye."

This is because ryegrass is going to make most of its growth in the late winter, early spring anyway, he said. Also, while the cost of establishing wheat or oats or rye is relatively high, the gamble with ryegrass is not going to be so high-stakes.

"The seeding rate for wheat and other winter annuals is typically about 90 pounds per acre, and the seed is not cheap," he said. "So if we miss that fall window of opportunity, then ryegrass becomes an option that is a lot less expensive to plant. You only have to plant 30 pounds per acre. You don't have to drill it; you can broadcast it, and drag or lightly harrow it."

More information on the current Texas drought and wildfire alerts can be found on the AgriLife Extension Agricultural Drought Task Force website at

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