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Upper Mid-South wheat: bumper crop to disaster

When a freeze hit Easter weekend, most upper Mid-South wheat was at late-boot to flowering, the period it is most sensitive to frigid temperatures. Such wheat can be severely damaged when exposed to temperatures of 28 to 30 degrees for two hours.

If only. Readings in Arkansas verification fields showed below freezing temperatures for 17 hours.

Missouri Bootheel wheat that was headed at Easter “is now ruined,” says Gene Stevens, Missouri Extension crop production specialist. “Those heads are white or very yellow.

“I was looking at a field this morning. I’m seeing some anthers coming out that may pollinate. But 5 feet away, the wheat is stunted with dead heads and the younger tiller heads aren’t as big.

“If you pull a plant and split the stem close to the ground there’s evident damage. I suspect those plants will probably make some heads, but they’ll lodge very easily. We’ll have major losses in Bootheel wheat.”

The Monday after Easter, Jason Kelley walked many wheat fields and thought “there’s nothing wrong with this wheat.” But on closer inspection, the Arkansas Extension wheat specialist found blackened bermudagrass and doubts began.

“In some fields it just took a while for damage to show up,” says Kelley. “We’ve lost at least half our yield statewide. Last year, we set a state record yield at 61 bushels per acre. The USDA crop ratings before the freeze were better than they were last year. So we were heading towards another bumper, if not record, crop.

“It’s so, so discouraging. There was exceptional wheat in the state. Going from that to the current field conditions is really a tough blow.”

Roger Gipson prefers the term “hard lick” to describe the situation in northern Arkansas. “Some fields are complete write-offs,” says the Pioneer agronomist. “Then, there are other fields that are badly hurt but will still yield enough to keep.”

It’s very difficult to gauge how much warm weather will perk up the wheat. But there’s been “substantial damage no matter how you look at it. One grower said he has $200,000 in 1,300 acres of wheat. If, as he expects, the yield is cut 70 percent-plus, it’s an absolute disaster. It’s bad enough for someone with 50 acres of wheat. But I know growers with 3,000 acres of wheat who were counting on it.”

The devastation happened on the backside of the wheat growing season. While the freeze also badly hurt much Mid-South corn, “that happened on the front end. The corn can still be replanted, salvaged. But the wheat input costs were already spent and everyone was praying for an 80-bushel yield.”

In Tennessee, very little will be harvested from wheat fields headed out over Easter.

“About half the fields that were in an advanced boot stage when the freeze happened have come out of a tailspin and put on a viable seed head,” says Chris Main, Tennessee Extension wheat specialist. “The other half is stuck in boot. Most fields that were at the jointing stage have soft stems, and we’re beginning to see some lodging. Or, if they aren’t lodging, the plants have become chlorotic and yellowed.”

Melvin Newman, Tennessee Extension plant pathologist, says 90 percent of Tennessee’s wheat acres were “severely affected by the freeze. And 80 percent of that probably will not have an appreciable harvest. That’s on about 400,000 acres planted — almost double from 2006.”

Tennessee wheat that will yield half its original potential “is in very small, often secluded pockets,” says Main. “Those fields often have trees or water around them — some kind of protection.”

All wheat north of Gillette, Ark., has freeze damage. “Unfortunately, many growers north of I-40 have probably got a hay crop or a very low yielding wheat field,” says Rick Cartwright, Arkansas Extension plant pathologist.

“There will have to be decisions made on whether it’s worth keeping. Will just a few bushels be enough to pay expenses? Is it better to wait and go with double-crop soybeans? Is it better to go ahead and plant the beans now?

“I’d probably shy away from planting beans until I knew what the field’s potential is. And that won’t be known (until the second week of May).”

South of I-40, blanket statements are hard to make. “It’s very much field-by-field. Some fields are heavily damaged and some had very little.”

Bootheel farmers have asked Stevens how much yield difference there is between double-crop and single-crop soybeans. “Will 20 bushels of wheat make up for a smaller soybean yield? Farmers are really playing with the math and scenarios. The decisions they’re being forced to make are multi-faceted.”

Before doing anything in the field, insured farmers should check with their insurance companies.

“Producers wanting to plant into their wheat are often required to keep a 10-foot strip,” says Main. “They’re being asked to carry it through to harvest as normal so an accurate loss assessment can be made.

“If the insurance company does a loss assessment now, it’s a stand count. And, right now, most of the wheat is still standing. An accurate adjustment can’t be made.”

If a strip is left, “it will allow a seed count in the heads. Even if we have nice, green anthers, is the pollen viable? We don’t know how good a seed set we’ll get or how good the test weights will be.”

Tennessee wheat producers without insurance are “either grazing the wheat, cutting it for hay or spraying paraquat to prepare for cotton or beans.”

Main’s advice for those who plan to double-crop soybeans: leave the wheat alone. “Don’t make any more inputs and ride it out. If the crop lies down, it’s done. But if it stays standing, maybe you’ll be able to get enough grain to pay some expenses.”

Along with Larry Steckel, Tennessee Extension weed specialist, Main is working on a crisis exemption for the Harmony Extra label. Currently, the label “states you can’t feed Harmony-treated wheat to livestock. We’re trying to make sure such wheat can be used as forage.

“One thing working in our favor is DuPont had a tolerance package into EPA. We’re trying to help … get it expedited so our farmers can cut their wheat for forage. And if it isn’t cut very soon, it won’t be worth cutting.”

If there’s a hot, dry spell in the next couple of weeks it could make wheat even uglier, say the plant pathologists.

“Some stems are partially damaged,” says Wrather. “They’re functioning as long as the temperatures are mild and there’s plenty of moisture. The seeds are filling. But if a dry spell hits, those partially-damaged stems will die. Then, the seed fill is set. That could mean small seed, poorer wheat.”

Cartwright has fielded questions about using fungicides in the wheat. “Some farmers went from yield potentials of 80 bushels per acre one day to probably 15 bushels the next. Why spray a field like that? I wouldn’t be treating most of these fields — at this point, that would be good money after bad.”

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