There's an old saying among farmers that like cats, the Kansas wheat crop has nine lives.

And in Kansas, where the weather is always changing, the adage has largely been proven true. Wheat has sustained through dry spells, high winds and fluctuating temperatures.

But as he walked through stands of wheat breaking dormancy, Rice County farmer Doug Keesling admits there are some situations that even miracle wheat can't overcome.

While signs of spring are beginning to appear across the Kansas prairie, so is the evidence that it has been a long, cold winter in the heart of the Wheat Belt.

"Dead is dead," Keesling, a Kansas Wheat Commissioner who farms near Chase, said of the winterkill damage that has spread across a large swath of central Kansas. "It is hard to give CPR to something that is dead."

A few sub-zero events this winter with little to no snow cover may have frozen some wheat plants to death. On this day, the adverse conditions are evident - patches of brown are scattered across fields amid others that are greening. Keesling even points to a neighbor's field where the farmer changed seed halfway through planting - a blatant line showing how one variety was adversely affected over the other.

"I'm more fortunate than others," Keesling said, noting one of his fields he walked has just 20 percent damage. Another, however, is 60 percent.

Cold winter

Sometimes the temperature can be too cold.

Across Kansas, the winter was colder than normal. For instance, in Reno County, the monthly average low was 5 degrees cooler than normal years. In December and January, the average was 8.50 degree and 5 degrees colder, respectively.

In most areas of Kansas, it is still too early to determine damage from the cold to the wheat crop. However, when a polar vortex strikes with little to no snow cover, especially combined with poor soil moisture, the risk of damage is high, according to the Kansas Wheat Commission.

While snow cover saved some areas from the freeze, central Kansas lacked the protective white blanket for the extreme cold temperatures.

Winterkill damage reports are coming into the commission from Beloit to the Oklahoma border to as far west as Hays. Already, some farmers have had visits from crop adjusters - for if the wheat plants aren't greening up as the weather warms, they probably won't.

Kansas State University Northeast Kansas agronomist Stu Duncan said the impact of winterkill has been unusual this year.

"I really haven't seen winterkill all these years but on terrace tops and going up slopes," he said.

This year, however, areas with winterkill are occurring no matter the location.

Duncan said planting depth is a big factor with those who planted shallower - less than an inch deep - affecting more so than others. Another factor is planting date and whether farmers sowed seed into conventional tilled or no-tilled ground.

Also, he said, the cold temperatures caused winterkill in some varieties more than others. Lack of adequate precipitation didn't allow for good root development as well, causing the crop to be more susceptible to the cold temperatures.

"What happens when you don't have good moisture at the crown level, the cold penetrates deeper," Duncan said. "We'd like to have five inches of snow when we have those sub-zero temperatures."

Still, Duncan said, some areas could still make it through to harvest - part of why the nine lives saying often rings true.

For those plants still alive and developing, "an inch of rain could cure a lot of ills."

That includes western Kansas, said John Holman, a K-State agronomist in southwest Kansas. While there are some areas of winterkill in this region, the biggest issue is still drought.

"If we don't get the moisture here, we are going to be in trouble," Holman said. "We have very little subsoil moisture. It really needs to start raining."

Potential still there

On a sunny day this week, Keesling toured his region near Chase with fellow Kansas Wheat Commissioner David Radenberg from Claflin. The two assessed the damage.

Despite spring weather, both admit worry that another arctic blast will hit.

A lore among farmers is there can be no sigh of relief until after Easter weekend - which, in the past, has been the cutoff for some of the hardest-hit freezes - despite the date Easter falls on. For instance, in 2007, an Easter weekend freeze decimated most of the central Kansas wheat crop.

"For some reason, it's the breaking point," Keesling said, adding temperatures even just dipping to freezing on Easter morning could be detrimental.

But there are other milestones the crop most hit before June - such as adequate rainfall and dodging hailstorms. Keesling said he received enough rainfall last fall to develop a good stand. Nevertheless, little moisture has fallen since.

"I'm concerned whether we'll get enough moisture to go through jointing," Keesling said of another stage of crop development.

For now, "we just have to wait and see what is going to come out of it and what is not," Radenberg said of winterkill damage. "It's on a field-by-field basis."

Farmers are eternal optimists, Radenberg added. The crop's potential won't truly be known until the June harvest.

Moreover, wheat is very forgiving, Keesling said.

"We are going to have a wheat crop," he said. "It's just what level will it be - is it going to be a bumper crop, an average crop or a poor crop? No one knows until the combines start rolling."