The percentage of the Kansas wheat crop adversely impacted by freeze damage is expected to go up substantially in the days ahead.
It will take several days after the weather warms up to get a handle on just how much damage was done when the temperature hit a record 25 degrees in Wichita in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, but there is no doubt that the wheat crop is far enough along in south central Kansas that damage is inevitable.
Just about all of Kansas was hit with either freeze or hard freeze Tuesday night into Wednesday and frost and freeze warnings are in effect for Wednesday night into Thursday.
Highs on Wednesday were in the high 50s under bright sunshine and temperatures are forecast to climb steadily through the rest of the week with his in the mid-70s by the weekend.
For wheat growers, it is wait and see and hope for the best.
“This could really have done some damage,” says Kansas State University Extension agronomist Jim Shroyer.
Shroyer said that freeze damage may not be immediately apparent. In fact, damage from a hard freeze two weeks on April 9 and 10 is just beginning to be fully noticeable in the wheat of the western part of the state. That cold snap dropped temperatures to 29 in Wichita, but only for a short time and damage was not extensive.
“It’s possible for freeze-damaged wheat to still look green and OK,” he said. “But if you notice new tillers starting to grow out from the crown or the growing point, that’s an indication that the main tiller was killed. That’s the plant trying to compensate."
Shroyer said that fields damaged by freeze are likely to have a distinct silage smell after a few days of warmer weather – a result of cell rupture from the freezing temperatures. If you split open stems to reveal the growing point, frozen wheat will have a distinct whitish or pale yellow color instead of healthy green.
Wichita set three records on Tuesday – one for the coldest high temperature of any April 23 since record-keeping began -- a frosty 37 degrees with strong winds and periodic rain and snow; two for the latest measurable snowfall ever, breaking the record of April 20, 1918 and, three for the lowest low on record, 25 degrees.
Temperatures in south central Kansas were expected to hit the frost mark again on Wednesday night, hovering right around freezing to slightly below. Hard frost warnings with temperatures in the mid-20s are expected again over much of western Kansas.
Shroyer said the wheat has a chance to recover somewhat from the freeze damage if conditions going forward are conductive to secondary tiller development. The worst-case scenario, he said, is a sudden change to summery conditions with highs in the 90s and dry, southwest winds.
But wheat that suffered freeze damage to the primary tiller has lost yield potential, he said.
In the northwest part of the state, drought and a hard freeze two weeks ago have taken a severe toll.
“I can’t think of a year in my 40 years of experience when I have seen this many fields look this bad,” said wheat farmer and seed salesman Vance Ehmke. “It is just a disaster.”
Ehmke said he has already had regular customers inquiring about buying seed now for next fall in anticipation of seed shortages from this year’s crop loss.
“They are paying cash and taking delivery,” he said. “And they are smart to do it.”
Ehmke said he has also noticed a marked increase in the planting of spring small grain crops such as oats and triticale as producers who have given up on their wheat crop have planted the grains in hope of having some forage this spring and summer.
For producers who were lucky enough to have good wheat before the freeze hit, it’s too late for spring small grains. They need to be planted by the end of March and absolutely no later than Apri 10, he said. But with sufficient moisture, a fall crop may still be possible.
“In western Kansas, it has to rain first,” he said. “And the rain just doesn’t seem to fall.”