Big chill expected to have minimal impact on state’s wheat crop

(Illinois Farm Bureau file photo)

Waves of winter storms and frigid temperatures caused numerous issues around the Midwest and south this week, ranging from travel concerns and rolling electric blackouts in a number of states to challenges caring for livestock during calving and lambing seasons.

But one concern that may not turn out to be a major issue, at least in Illinois, involves the status of the winter wheat crop.

With the crop currently in a dormant phase, Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois agronomist and professor emeritus, believes it should survive the brutal stretch relatively unscathed, except for possible leaf damage in some areas.

“There’s been a little ice, so that could be a problem (in the form of reduced leaf area),” Nafziger told FarmWeek. “But, when it’s in dormancy, the crown temperature is what we’re most concerned about.

“It’s not leaf (loss) that kills the plant, it’s killing the crown (that wrecks a stand),” he noted. “It (the crown) has stored carbohydrates that sort of gives it an antifreeze. I’d expect it to be in good shape at this point.”

Temperatures plunged to the some of the lowest levels in two years across the state with the arrival of an arctic air blast the first weekend of the month. But 4-inch bare soil temperatures ranged from 28 to 34 degrees in the northern half of the state and 30 to 35 degrees in the southern half of Illinois as of Feb. 14, according to the Illinois State Water Survey.

The arrival of the heaviest snowfall of the season in much of the southern two-thirds of Illinois caused extensive travel issues, but actually was a welcome sight for the wheat crop.

A previous study at North Dakota State University found even a 2- to 3-inch layer of snow protects dormant wheat at air temperatures down to minus 30 degrees.

“I think the (Illinois) wheat crop is in good shape now and where there’s snow cover, it’s even better,” Nafziger said. “Some snow cover is very helpful. It doesn’t allow (the crop) to experience the low nighttime temperatures.”

The condition of the wheat crop in Illinois ranked 65% good to excellent, 24% fair and 11% poor to very poor as of Jan. 25, just prior to the big chill, the National Agricultural Statistics Service Illinois field office reported.

Freezing temperatures typically are more of a concern for winter wheat when the crop is actively growing, either right before going into dormancy in November or December or once it breaks dormancy in March or April. Ice is one of the top threats to the crop in the winter, while standing water is a major issue in warmer months.

“It could lose some leaf area (in areas that received ice), but I expect it to green up when it warms up,” Nafziger said. “Our yields are made in the spring.”

The polar plunge and recent precipitation could be more of a threat to the wheat crop in southern states, though, where the crop was actively growing when ice and snowstorms pummeled the country’s midsection.

Wheat growers should begin assessing stands by next month.