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Too soon to give up on winter wheat

The Prairie winter wheat crop may have been left looking a bit worse for wear due to unusually low snowfall cover, but there’s still life lurking below those browned-off stalks.

That’s because it takes more than just a tap on the head to kill winter wheat, said Outlook, Sask.-area farmer Dale Hicks, who is also chair of the Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission.

“There’s going to be damage on headlands and hilltops, but not going to experience wall-to-wall death. That’s impossible,” said Hicks, on the sidelines of last week’s workshop hosted by Manitoba Winter Cereals Inc.

It takes at least 30 skull-shattering whacks, or more accurately, incidents of severe frost, to push the crown tissue over the “line of death.”

Even without good snow cover, Hicks pegs the number of “damage events” on the Prairie crop’s Winter Survival Model at only five so far this winter during cold snaps in January and February.

“We had a winter more like South Dakota, where they grow lots of winter wheat without snow,” said Hicks.

Driving by at 100 km/h, a field of orange tops flat on the ground might look ripe for spraying out and reseeding. But when attempting to determine if a winter wheat crop is a writeoff or not, he urged farmers to pull up some plants and look for the telltale white to greenish-yellow “thread of life” at the base of the stalk.

Black and mushy roots are a sure sign of death. But if it’s mainly white inside with a little brown around the edges, that means the plant has suffered limited injury from frost-induced dehydration – freezer burn.

Even so, the end result might be a respectable crop, even with 10 per cent thinned, 10 per cent damaged, and another 10 per cent dead.

“It might not be a bumper crop, but it still might fill in and yield more than spring wheat,” said Hicks.

At any rate, the early spring gives farmers plenty of time to reassess whether the crop is worth keeping. If by mid-April it still hasn’t bounced back, then it’s time to consider pulling the pin.

“I’ve held on to stands up until May 10, and only once had a winter wheat yield that was the same as a spring wheat yield,” said Hicks.

Selkirk-area farmer Doug Martin, chair of MWCI, said that some 600,000 acres of winter wheat were seeded in Manitoba last August after wet fields dried out.

“It’s back to the normal trend,” said Martin. “We lost acres in the last couple of years because it was either too wet to get it into the ground or the crop didn’t come off by the end of September.”

Manitoba farmers are nervous about winterkill in this year’s crop due to the lack of snow cover, but the warm winter is expected to help.

“We haven’t had the cold hits. We’re optimistic,” he said, adding that the winter wheat varieties grown in Manitoba have very good cold tolerance.

Pam de Rocquigny, a MAFRI cereal crops specialist, said that crop insurance data from 1986-2007 shows that winterkill in winter wheat has accounted for only 8.7 per cent of crop losses on average – a figure dwarfed by excess moisture and drought.

“Keep scouting. Just because you went out once and it looked good, that doesn’t mean that things are hunky-dory,” she said, adding that plants might green up with warmer temperatures and then later die.

Winter wheat sown into black fields with no stubble may be at greater risk due to the lack of snow.

If wind blows soil away leaving the seedlings exposed, they may be more vulnerable to cold and dry conditions, said Rocquigny.

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