In parts of the Prairies, thin to nonexistent snow cover in parts through much of the early spring months might have some farmers worried about their winter wheat.
But agronomists say it’s too soon to make the decision to reseed.
“You can go out and do a spring assessment at the end of April if the weather has been nice and you want to go check it, but that’s far too early to make decisions about the stand,” says Amanda Swanson, an agronomist with the Western Winter Wheat Initiative in Moose Jaw, Sask.
“Before May 25 it’s too early to make that decision.”
The WWWI’s recommendations note that a four-inch cover of light, fluffy snow through the coldest part of the winter — December 22 to March 20 — is ideal for protecting winter wheat against extremely low temperatures.
But this year, Swanson says, the risk of winterkill was low, with soil temperatures rarely ranging as low as an estimated -10 C to -15 C.
“Although we haven’t had the snow cover, we aren’t that concerned because soil temperatures need to get down to minus 20 or below before there are concerns about winterkill,” she says.
She notes that careful scouting is necessary. It is possible, for example, to mistake other problems for winterkill, such as plant mortality in select areas due to ice encasement from early spring runoff.
Winter wheat growers should dig up plants in various locations and check for new root and shoot growth, as well as white crown tissue, which are all signs of healthy plants.
Mark Akins, who farms south of Moose Jaw, says he is currently waiting to do a spring assessment on 900 acres of winter wheat.
He’s been growing winter wheat for a decade, and in his experience, insufficient snow cover hasn’t yet been a factor in winterkill. “I haven’t had a winterkill experience at any point in my winter wheat career when I had a good establishment in the fall,” he says.
Good fall establishment — when plants get to the three- to four-leaf stage with good crown tissue — will usually result in healthy plants come spring.
“In our area producers who have winter wheat are probably more concerned about early warm temperatures — we had some crazy high temperatures at the beginning of March, and probably one of the things growers are worried about are their crops starting too early,” he says.
Swanson notes that growers new to winter wheat are more likely to be concerned about winterkill than experienced growers. For new growers, Akins recommends assuming winter wheat will be hardy enough to make it through the winter, but developing a “Plan B” just in case.
His rule of thumb is to get spring seeding 50 per cent completed before making any decisions on whether reseeding is necessary.
At that point, if producers are still unsure about the status of the winter wheat crop — and Akins says it should be obvious if the crop is doing well by this point — they should consider implementing Plan B.
WWWI can send agronomists out to fields to help producers make that decision.
But Swanson says she’s never yet recommended a grower “rip up a field.”
“A poor winter wheat stand usually ends up being a better option than a late seeded crop of another variety,” she says. “Poor winter wheat stands can surprise you. And when you look at the economics of it, if you’ve spent money on the seed and fertility, the poor winter wheat stand is still usually more profitable than the next crop you’re seeding, if you wait until the end of May to make that decision.”
The Western Winter Wheat Initiative is a joint effort by Bayer Crop Science, Richardson International and Ducks Unlimited to build awareness of winter wheat as a crop option for Prairie farmers. For more winter wheat agronomy information, see the WWWI’s website at growwinterwheat.ca or call the office at 1-866-761-5270.