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Is the winter wheat going to be alright?

Patience is key to judging the health of your winter wheat stand this spring

If you’re wondering how your winter wheat crop is faring in the field this winter, you’re not alone. Agronomists at The Western Winter Wheat Initiative (WWWI) — a project to build awareness and credibility of winter wheat — has already received calls from growers asking about how and when to judge the stand.

Paul Thoroughgood, an agronomist with the WWWI, says growers will need to be patient and give the crop time to come around in May before they come up with plan B.

“The time to make a call on a winter wheat crop should really come when growers are about halfway through spring seeding,” says Thoroughgood. “That gives the plant the time it needs to recover.”

If you really must look

Thoroughgood notes winter kill in the Canadian Prairies is about the same as Kansas — only in the nine to 10 per cent range. “Growers in that region aren’t preoccupied with winter kill, and neither should we,” he says.

But if you’re short on patience, there is something you might try when the ground begins to soften: bring a few plants inside. Thoroughgood says on his own farm he has dug up a four-inch row and put it in a plastic dish in the kitchen so he could watch it grow.

“The leaves might green up, or they might be dead — that doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “I think we’ll see a lot of leaves turn brown this year because in a some areas we had cooler temperatures with no snow.”

After a week or 10 days, he suggests pulling one or two plants out of the container and rinsing them off. Last year’s roots will be light brown in colour, but the new roots from this year will be bright white — that’s the sign of new growth.

“If growers are nervous about growing winter wheat for the first time, pulling a few plants is a great way to educate themselves, but they still can’t make a final decision until they’re well into seeding,” Thoroughgood says.

It’s warm underground. Promise

It’s not practical to dig up every plant to judge whether or not it made it through winter. Thoroughgood says winter wheat requires a large helping of trust.

“This year we had a phenomenal fall with a nice, gradual move into winter, which should have resulted in the plants being well-acclimated, reaching their maximum cold tolerance,” he says.

According to temperatures from winter survival stations throughout the prairies, soil was still nowhere near temperatures where we should be concerned about winter survival issues. In late December and early January — the peak of winter hardiness period for winter wheat — the temperature of the soil at one inch below soil surface was around -12 C. Winter wheat plants will tolerate -22 C to -24 C at their maximum — there’s a lot of buffer there.

“When it’s -30 C outside at night and -15 C during the day, most people think about the extreme cold of overnight and they think the crop could have frozen,” he says. “But we forget how much heat there is trapped in the earth. And that heat continues to move up throughout most of the winter. Snow cover is a great benefit for a winter wheat crop because it traps that heat in there.”

He notes a bigger concern would be moving further into the spring, when the plant starts to de-acclimate, and become a reproductive plant rather than a vegetative plant. It gradually loses its ability to tolerate cold temperatures.

“Prolonged, nasty cold that we sometimes get in March is probably more damaging if the snow is gone then,” he says.

What you can do now for next year’s crop

So what can you do now to keep winter wheat top of mind? Plan next year’s crop.

“If growers are contemplating making winter wheat part of their crop rotation, the most successful growers make that decision in March or April and plan and manage accordingly,” says Thoroughgood. “That might mean swathing a portion of their canola rather than straight-cutting it all, for example.”

“Start making a plan in March or April and execute it in May rather than making the plan in August, hoping to execute in September,” he says. “Successful winter wheat growers do it on purpose rather than by accident.”

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