Repeated Cold Blasts Add to Winter Wheat Crop Concerns

Kansas Viewpoint

Some snow covered wheat in first Polar vortex but dry conditions, no cover in latest blast is worrisome

Published on: January 27, 2014

OK, grammar gurus out there. What is the plural of vortex? Vortexes or vortices?

However, you spell it, I sure am sick of the polar variety of the above. Yes, I am a bit of a wimp for complaining about merely being slammed with periodic near-zero or sub-zero temperatures made worse by 60 mph winds when my colleagues elsewhere are also getting hit with a foot or two of snow, along with zero-degree temps and high winds.

I think maybe it isn’t just the bitter cold, it’s also the repeated roller coaster of 62 degrees and light breezes to howling winds and “feels like” temperatures of 20 below in a 12-hour period.

With the first Polar Vortex, the one that made the pundits shake their heads and proclaim the long-standing climatology term an “invention” of the climate change crowd, we saw some concern about the potential for winter kill on the bone dry and poorly covered winter winter wheat crop.

DANGER TO WHEAT: Extreme cold combined with no snow cover present risk of winter kill or cold damage to this years crop.
DANGER TO WHEAT: Extreme cold combined with no snow cover present risk of winter kill or cold damage to this year's crop.

Much of Kansas had only light snow and some areas had none at all when the first big cold plunge came. The uncovered winter wheat, agronomists said, could have taken a pretty hard hit.

In the latest round, the ground is bare and even drier, thanks to drying effect of freezing on the soil. Needless to say, bare ground, dead wheat and 60-mph winds are the perfect combination to send the topsoil of Kansas airborne. And the impact of new waves of deep cold on uncovered wheat could well increase the amount of winter kill damage we’ll have to deal with.

Dry winters in Kansas are not unusual; in fact they are the norm. But this year has been drier than usual. Wichita is almost two inches behind on moisture in the past 90 days, with a paltry 1.3 inches of precipitation since Nov. 1. Salina has seen more precipitation, but also has a higher normal. Almost two inches of precipitation is still an inch and half behind. In Topeka, where 1.78 inches has been recorded, the deficit is 2.1 inches.

The dry does have an advantage for the cattle in feedlots. Extreme cold means more of the calories the cattle consume go to keeping up their body temperature and less to weight gain. But being dry and cold is not the life-threatening even that wet and cold is.

As for the winter wheat crop, if we get good spring rains, the wheat that is not winter damaged could still produce a good crop. Fall growth and tillering in most areas was good and in some spots, notably central and south central Kansas, the wheat was in excellent shape going into dormancy. And hard red winter wheat is pretty cold tolerant.

I’m trying to be optimistic. But this has been the kind of winter that makes it difficult.