During the last several days, you have probably been hearing folks talk about what these cold temperatures will do to the wheat with the dry soil conditions. There are a couple of factors that affect winterkill in wheat. They are: how established the wheat plant is, the depth of the crown of the wheat plant, how long the cold temperatures last and how wet the soil is when it gets cold.
First, lets discuss the moisture of the soil. The greatest injury can occur when the soil is very dry. Dry soil warms up and cools down six times faster than moist soil. Loose seedbeds at seeding also dry out faster and hence cool down and warm up more rapidly, contributing to winter injury.
Now, if you look at the drought monitor for Kansas, the whole state is classified as at least abnormally dry. That is what northwest Kansas is; however, at least we have a bit of moisture that soaked in from the snow before Christmas. However, a pretty good chunk of southwest Kansas is labeled as moderate or severe drought. Their wheat may be more at risk because of the dry conditions. In addition to moisture, a layer of snow also provides insulation to the cold temperatures.
Second, lets discuss the growth stage of the wheat plant. Winter wheat plants with a good crown root system and two or more tillers can tolerate the cold temperatures better than less developed plants. Now, I wouldn’t say that we have great secondary root systems (roots that come off the crown area of the plant), but all in all they are not too bad.
Third, the depth of the crown is something that I have seen play a big role in wheat’s ability to survive the winter. Winter wheat seeded shallowly will have the crown closer to the soil surface and be much more susceptible to winter injury. Exposed crowns on terraces or slopes have a greater chance of suffering winter injury. Also, if you have wheat drilled into a thick mat of residue, the crown may be placed quite shallow. That is because the crown will begin to develop when the plant sees sunlight. If the plant has to grow through a thick layer of residue, the crown may end up being placed in that residue. Unfortunately, the residue doesn’t provide much protection to the crown of the plant from cold temperatures because of the air pockets and fluffy nature of it.
Finally, let’s discuss the duration of the cold temperatures. Right now, the wheat is at its maximum tolerance to the cold temperatures. The wheat freeze chart shows that injurious temperatures to wheat during the winter are -5 to -10 degrees. This is for the temperature at the crown of the wheat plant.
All in all, the smaller wheat with a less developed root system and shallow crown placement is the most susceptible to winter injury from the cold temperatures. Time and warmer temperatures will tell us how the wheat has responded to the cold temperatures. I have dug up some wheat and brought inside to see how it greens up and develops roots. I will let you know what I find out!
I have posted the wheat freeze chart on the K-State Sunflower District Agronomy website at www.sunflower. ksu.edu/agronomy. If you have any questions, please get ahold of me at the K-State Sunflower District Extension Offices in St. Francis, Sharon Springs or Goodland.
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