If you drive by the fields of wheat flattened by the western Kansas blizzard of April 29 and 30, they appear to be making a good recovery. Wheat is standing up, still green and beginning to head out.
If you walk through those same fields and pull back the canopy for a closer look, you're going to see a lot of severely damaged stems, and that could spell trouble for wheat yields, depending on what the weather brings in the coming weeks to harvest.
Vance Ehmke, who farms in Lane County, has about 3,000 acres of wheat affected by the freak storm.
He says that broken stems literally cover the ground in many fields. The damage was caused both by the heavy, wet snow, which totaled as much as 20 inches in the region, and by high winds that hit 55 to 60 mph during the two-day storm.
That leaves wheat watchers still in a "wait and see" position because how much damage was actually done may not be known until harvest or very close to it.
As most people familiar with hard red winter wheat know, it is a crop that has many recovery systems. It puts out a number of secondary tillers, for example, and has the ability to shift its energy to filling those heads if the main tiller is damaged or killed.
The stem develops in nodes and has plant growth hormones that enable the plant to start bending upward at any node. Ehmke says he noted that many plants were bending at a node to give the head the appearance of being upright.
He says Jim Shroyer, Kansas State University Extension wheat specialist emeritus, assured him that type of bend is OK.
"Jim said that is just fine," Ehmke says. "The bends at the nodes are what we want to happen."
The problem is with kinked or split stems that may eventually be unable to carry enough nutrients to the head to make grain.
As always, healing will be the most successful if the weather stays cool and wet — and so far, May has been cool and wet in abundance. Those weather conditions are also ideal for the spread of fungal diseases such as stripe rust and leaf rust, leaving producers to decide whether they want to invest more money in a crop with an iffy future by applying fungicide.
If it turns hot, dry and windy, the maturation of the crop will speed up, and chances for yield recovery go down. But the chance for fungal diseases goes down.
Ehmke says there is another concern about the injured plants. They may produce a lot of small, low test weight kernels which will go right out the back of the combine with the chaff — seeding a splendid crop of volunteer wheat after harvest and compounding the epidemic of wheat streak mosaic that is already a big problem in western Kansas.