Prairie weather threatens winter wheat

Extreme cold and a lack of snow cover are raising fears about Prairie winter wheat crop damage.

“The cold and lack of snow definitely have us thinking about winter injury,” says Western Winter Wheat Initiative agronomist Paul Thoroughgood.

Poor establishment conditions during the autumn are compounding the lack of snow and freezing temperatures as less developed plants are more prone to winter injury, he says.

“Saskatchewan has experienced the very same as Alberta and Manitoba for lack of snow cover and periods of very cold temperatures,” adds Saskatchewan Agriculture’s regional crops specialist, Cory Jacob. “The season’s conditions may impact the winter wheat crop with winter kill, which would be due to the low temperatures and not much snow to insulate the plants in the soil."

Winter wheat’s survival depends on a healthy crown, and its shallowness makes it susceptible to cold, especially without adequate insulating snow cover, explains Alberta Agriculture crop specialist Harry Brook.

Prairie regions have also experienced periods of unseasonably warm weather – including records set in Alberta – and Brook says prolonged durations can lead to a gradual loss of hardiness.

“But the [Alberta] warm spell in December probably wasn’t significant,” he adds.

Fewer acres

Winter wheat acres plummeted in fall of 2017, likely due to dry seeding conditions, Jacob says.

At 335,000 acres, winter wheat seedings weren’t this low since the year 2000. Prairie acreage reached 535,000 acres in 2016, well off 2007’s highs of 1.5 million.

“Many growers chose not to seed, and those of us who did seed did so in very undesirable conditions,” Thoroughgood says.

Spring assessment

Farmers will need to wait until spring to assess the extent of damage if any occurred.

“Most growers are in a panic in spring and do their establishment inspections far too early,” notes Thoroughgood.

The Western Winter Wheat Initiative offers information on how to determine winter wheat survival, while the University of Saskatchewan Winter Wheat Survival Model offers further insights.

“One or two locations are nearing an area of concern, while others are OK,” Thoroughgood says. 

Bottom line

Extreme cold and inadequate snow cover are putting winter wheat survival at risk, but farmers won’t know the degree of damage until spring. 

Article by: Richard Kamchen