Arctic blast puts wheat crop at risk in U.S. Plains

Frigid weather headed to the U.S. Plains states next week will push the young wheat crop into dormancy and cause damage if snow fails to blanket the crop before the Arctic blast hits the region, an agricultural meteorologist said on Wednesday.

The potential risks of winterkill damage, though, eased from earlier in the week as the outlook called for temperatures to be closer to 0 F (-18 C), not sub-zero, and there was a chance of snow before the Arctic freeze, Don Keeney, a senior forecaster with Cropcast, a division of MDA Earthsat Weather, told Reuters’ online Ags Forum.

“Today’s outlook isn’t quite as aggressive with the cold, and I do believe there should be at least some snow move through before the next cold wave,” he said, adding there “may be some very isolated damage in minor growing areas but that’s about it.”

Crop specialists keep a close eye on the young U.S. winter wheat crop now as it transitions into winter dormancy. Dormant wheat unprotected from snow is at risk of being burnt when temperatures dip below 0 F for four hours or more, thus preventing the crop from reaching its full yield potential next summer.

The majority of the wheat grown in the Plains is hard red winter wheat — used to make bread and the largest variety produced in the U.S.,  the world’s top wheat exporter.

“The core of the cold should be in the northern Rockies and northern Plains, so there shouldn’t be any damage in the Midwest or Pacific Northwest,” Keeney said.

Lows in the northern Plains will dip into the low 20s F (about -4 to -7 C) over the next few days then warm into the upper 20s (about -1 to -4 C) by early next week before cooling to near 0 F in western Nebraska and northeastern Colorado by Dec. 6-7, he said.

“Current forecast models are in disagreement on the idea of snow preceding the cold in the northwest Plains,” Keeney said. “The American model shows widespread snow of three to eight inches across all of Nebraska, the northern half of Kansas, and northern Colorado. But the European model shows a more northerly track, and keeps the snow in the Dakotas with nearly none in Nebraska.”

The chilly temperatures this week across the Plains pushed about three-quarters of the Plains wheat belt into dormancy, he said. That leaves about a quarter of the crop yet to enter dormancy and vulnerable to winterkill if temperatures slip even into the teens F for four hours or more.

“We’re monitoring any changes to the forecast for the northwest Plains in regards to low temperatures later next week, and also snow cover late next week as well,” Keeney added.

— Christine Stebbins is the community editor for Reuters’ Global Ags Forum and reports on U.S. grain and oilseed markets from Chicago.

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