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Don’t rush to diagnose winter kill

Despite this winter’s weather, you may not need to reseed that winter wheat after all

Winter wheat growers concerned about winter kill should wait and see how the plants fare this spring before reseeding, says an agrologist.

“Don’t make a rash decision especially when you’ve got the rest of your farm to go seed,” says Paul Thoroughgood, who works for Ducks Unlimited and farms south of Moose Jaw. Farmers should give winter wheat a chance to recover and check back in mid to late May before deciding whether to reseed, he says.

“It is phenomenal how much the crop can recover so give it a shot to do that because it can often pay fairly significant dividends.”

Before reseeding, farmers should spray any winter annuals they didn’t control last fall, Thoroughgood says. Fertilizing winter wheat early will help the crop recover and maximize yield potential. Waiting until late May to fertilize forgoes some yield, he adds.

An optimum winter wheat stand is 20 to 30 plants per square foot. But a stand as lean as 10 to 15 plants per square foot can still yield a profitable crop due to winter wheat’s tillering ability. Farmers considering reseeding should compare the potential profitability of the late-seeded spring crop and the mediocre winter wheat, Thoroughgood says.

The average long-term winter kill rate for Saskatchewan’s winter wheat is nine per cent, says Thoroughgood. Kansas, the largest winter-wheat growing state, also has a winter kill rate of nine per cent, he says. Those numbers were pulled from crop insurance and U.S. Department of Agriculture data, he adds.

But that doesn’t mean the possibility of winter kill should be ignored completely.

“We haven’t had what you would call a normal winter,” says Thoroughgood. Light snow cover and cold winter temperatures could cause problems for winter wheat this year. On Thoroughgood’s farm, warm temperatures melted snow, causing water to run and pool. When the mercury dipped again, ice encased those spots, Thoroughgood says, and he expects to see dead plants in those patches.

But it’s still too early to say how widespread winterkill will be. Thoroughgood dug up a few plants on his farm during a warm spell this winter. Most of the plants were fine, he says.

Farmers concerned about winter conditions in their own fields can do spot checks. Thoroughgood suggests digging half a dozen to a dozen plants from both a poor and a good spot. After washing dirt off the plants, they should look for white, healthy crown tissue.

“It’s really important to remember that brown leaves do not mean a dead plant,” says Thoroughgood.

The next step is to put the plants on a wet paper towel and put saran wrap over top, creating a little greenhouse, says Thoroughgood. After five days to a week indoors, farmers should see “new, white roots coming out of that crown tissue,” he says.

Cereal seed is in tight supply this year, so concerned growers may want to clean or put their names on extra seed so they’re not caught in a pinch, he adds.

Despite the abnormal winter, Thoroughgood says he hasn’t been getting as many phone calls as might be expected. Winter wheat acres are down this year, and he thinks most of it was seeded by experienced winter wheat growers who aren’t easily rattled by poor winter weather.

Thoroughgood suspects part of the reason for the acreage drop was the “unhappy surprise” that landed in Manitoba growers’ bins last fall — fusarium. Environmental conditions favoured the disease while winter wheat was flowering last year.

But the main reason was the late harvest, which didn’t leave farmers with enough time to seed, Thoroughgood thinks. He says seed growers told him sales were brisk. “So I don’t think it was from lack of interest. I think it was just lack of ability to execute.”

Outside the fusarium-infected area in Manitoba, winter wheat produced well last year, says Thoroughgood. “It’s been one of our higher net income crops for the last few years and it did well again this year.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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