An unknown: Freeze's effect on wheat crop

By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News It looks like wintertime across the landscape of greening wheat, a crop that farmer Tom Giessel says had such potential. Three years of drought has parched the Kansas landscape, including the Larned-area farmer's fields. Yet while the drought still lingers, things seemed to be measuring up a little better this year - a few timely rains and snow have kept Giessel optimistic. So he tries to conceal his worry as much as he can - despite the fact his thermometer read below 20 degrees Wednesday morning - the 10th day in April that temperatures have fallen below freezing. Wheat can survive a lot of things, but a hard freeze like this has Giessel unsure. "I just don't know how many times this wheat plant can withstand that," he said. "I think we're really hurt bad, probably, but no one really knows." Too soon to tell As one of the coldest Aprils on record winds to a close, it could be another week to 10 days before Kansas farmers know the effect of freezing temperatures on the state's staple crop. "To what extent this freeze had, we don't know," said Bill Spiegel, with the Manhattan-based commodity organization Kansas Wheat. "We won't know for at least a week, and we won't know the full extent until harvest." Spiegel, who toured the state two weeks ago looking at fields after an earlier freeze event in April, said the damage from this week's freeze all depends on how much the crop has matured since the tour. "We're starting to feel a little less optimistic about it," he said, adding that the Wheat Quality Council's Hard Red Winter Wheat Tour across the wheat belt next week could shed some light on the state of Kansas' wheat crop. A saving grace might be that it has been a cooler spring, and thus the wheat hasn't matured as much as last year at this time, said Reno County Extension Agent Cody Barilla. That includes south-central Kansas, where rain has been more abundant. According to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service, 43 percent of the wheat has jointed, compared to 96 percent at this time last year and 63 percent for the five-year average. "I do think we have some damage," Barilla said. "I'm hoping we will just knock off some top-end yields, but I don't think we're going to destroy the wheat crop." The situation in western Kansas, however, could be more serious when combined with drought, said Kansas State Climatologist Mary Knapp. On average, southwest Kansas has received only 39 percent of its normal rainfall for this time of year. That part of Kansas remains in an extreme to exceptional drought - the highest rankings given by the U.S. Drought Monitor. "In southwest Kansas, they have had a tough row to hoe all along," Knapp said. "It has been so dry. There is no subsoil moisture." Thus, already poor establishments combined with a hard freeze - temperatures dropping to below 20 degrees Wednesday in some places in the region - mean "there might not be anything out there worth cutting," said Knapp. Even before the string of chilly spring nights, Futures International LLC projected that almost 24 percent of the planted hard red winter wheat acreage in the United States will be abandoned this year, the most since the 2002 drought. On Monday, KASS rated the state's wheat as 37 percent poor or very poor - largely due to the drought. About 33 percent of the crop is fair and 30 percent is good to excellent. Drought, said Greeley County Extension Agent Todd Schmidt, "is still the story here," noting that the wheat crop is three weeks behind schedule and probably missed the extensive damage. "It's never good," he said of the cold temperatures this time of year. "But it can't hurt it any more than the drought already has." With little fall rainfall during planting season, some of the wheat finally came up a few months ago, said Schmidt. This year, minus the freeze, wasn't looking like a bin buster. Last year, Greeley County tabulated an average 7 inches of moisture. On a normal year, annual precipitation should be about 18 inches. "We're coming off the driest year on record in 2012," Schmidt said. "And now we're four months into this deal, and we haven't gotten an inch of rain or an inch of moisture. We are on track to have another record-breaking year that we don't want to break." Staying positive In southern Kansas, wheat acres already have been abandoned due to the drought, said Stan Stark, general manager of the Haviland-based Farmers Co-op. Stark and area farmers are trying to remain upbeat about the freeze. "We're cautiously optimistic, but it probably won't be too good on it," he said. "If conditions were right the month of May, (the wheat) could heal itself." Giessel said a hard freeze hurt his crop before but never wiped it out completely. A late freeze in the late 1990s - when Giessel and others in the area thought they had lost everything - was followed by perfect weather conditions that saved the crop. That could happen again, in a perfect scenario, he said. The scenario, however, isn't perfect. Digging his probe down into the soil, Giessel said there is little profile much past a few feet on his corn ground. In his alfalfa fields, dig beyond 18 inches "and you hit concrete." The three-year dry spell equals a full year without rain. He is still hopeful, however, and feels blessed. Those farming farther west are in a worse situation with the drought and the freeze. "You work with what is given to you," Giessel said. "You can't change it." Crop insurance will soften the blow with the elevated crop prices, he said. Amid a relentless drought on the Kansas High Plains and battling brown wheat mites earlier this month, Kearny County farmer Gary Millershaski said he hasn't been as fortunate to miss the freeze. He suspected that at least 75 percent of his wheat is now damaged after temperatures dropped into the low teens April 10. When temperatures hit 19 degrees at his Lakin-area farm Wednesday, "it's just another nail in the coffin," he said. "Just hit me while I'm down." Nevertheless, like Giessel, Millershaski remains positive. "Rain makes grain," he said. "That is the only reason we keep watching the weather man. That is the only reason we have a little bit of hope. All it takes is a good old rainstorm and things will change."