Ont. winter wheat breaking dormancy early

Warmer-than-normal temperatures in Ontario are reported to have helped the winter wheat crop in the province break dormancy earlier than usual.

"There is certainly some wheat green up with growth dependent on the region of the province," said Peter Johnson, a cereals specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.

However, while the crop has come out of dormancy earlier than anticipated, the real concern is if there is a sudden stretch of cold weather.

"Once winter wheat breaks dormancy it is less cold-tolerant than when it is in its dormant state," Johnson said.

Winter wheat is still reasonably cold tolerant and if temperatures only decline into the -4 C region one night or even -8 C one night, damage will be minimal.

"But if we start getting into a string of temperatures hitting lows of -12 or -13 C, that would be bad for the crop," Johnson said.

However, the long range weather outlooks do not have any of those cold readings in the forecast at present and hopefully conditions will co-operate, he said.

As for the crop surviving the winter, the condition of the winter wheat was very much dependent on the region it was being grown in the province, Johnson said.

The crop was seeded in less than ideal conditions in the fall, he said, and in turn there were areas in which the stands were questionable.

"Planting of Ontario’s winter wheat was done under extremely wet conditions in October, with some areas too wet," Johnson said, pointing out that winter wheat is a dryland crop. "Anytime that you have the soils water logged or saturated, wheat is not happy."

Johnson said the crop as a whole has certainly spent more of the winter under less than perfect conditions than growers would have liked.

Wet conditions have done more to hurt the crop than the lack of snow cover during the winter, he added.

"There is no reason to expect that we will not have a good winter wheat harvest in Ontario due to the absence of snowfall during the dormancy period over the winter," Johnson said.

However, the saturated soil conditions are a totally different story, with some winterkill expected, he said.

Available acres

Farmers in Ontario were believed to have seeded roughly 700,000 acres of winter wheat in the fall of 2011, down from the usual one million acres, Johnson said. In 2007, a record 1.25 million acres of winter wheat were sown in Ontario.

Of the acres seeded in 2011, 79 per cent consisted of soft red winter wheat, 14 per cent hard red winter and the remaining seven per cent soft white winter wheat.

He acknowledged a fairly significant number of winter wheat acres were seeded in November, past crop insurance deadlines. Those acres have not been officially accounted for.

There was an appetite among farmers to seed at least one million acres of Ontario wheat, he said, but the conditions in the fall prevented that target from being hit.

He said with winter wheat area falling short of expectations, the province may face some serious straw shortages.

The decline in Ontario wheat area last fall, combined with damage to the crop over the winter, will also leave farmers in Ontario with the option of planting more corn, soybeans or alternative crops this spring.

"That provides more than 300,000 acres of land that will need to be planted to something, with the majority of that likely to be either corn or soybeans," Johnson said.

He acknowledged the area being seeded to canola in the province has also been growing, with an estimated 100,000 acres likely to be planted in the spring.

"The economics currently favour the growing of canola over barley or oats," he said.

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