Poor Root Systems to Blame for Drought-Stressed Wheat in NW Kansas

Once promising crop suffering as harvest nears.

Wheat producers in Southeast and Central Kansas may be experiencing the affects of too much moisture, but producers in the Northwest area of the state are facing an opposite concern.

In fields examined on June 5, much of the wheat appeared to be showing symptoms of drought stress although there is good moisture just four to eight inches below the soil surface, says Jim Shroyer, Kansas State University agronomist. While wheat roots at this stage of growth would normally be deep enough to reach moisture at this depth, the plants showing symptoms of stress also had very limited root systems.

In some instances, the distribution of plants with poor root development was consistent with the areas where there were snow drifts, resulting in uneven thawing during the winter. Researchers cannot be sure, however, that the excess snow was the only cause of the poor root systems.

Some of the affected plants also show signs of root disease, says Shroyer, who is the agronomy state leader for K-State Research and Extension. It is unlikely, though, that root diseases represent the full explanation either. K-State researchers are studying samples in the Department of Plant Pathology's Diagnostic Laboratory to confirm the role of root disease.

"It appears that some or maybe most of the 'drought stress' on wheat in northwest Kansas is actually the result of whatever has caused the reduced root systems," Shroyer says. "Although it didn't rain much in May, drought symptoms were showing up quite earlier than anticipated because the root systems are simply not deep enough to reach moisture, although the depth of moisture is not that great."

Many of the fields examined were very uneven in appearance and in some instances there were also patches of white heads beginning to appear, he said.

"There are a number of things that could have an affect on the wheat in Northwest Kansas this year," Shroyer says. "Individually these factors may not have an impact on yields, but when they're grouped together like this, it creates the potential for the yields of some fields to be affected."

At this point, there is nothing that producers can do about poor root systems, Shroyer says, but he recommends that they watch for shattered grain during harvest and for volunteer wheat later this summer.

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