Winter wheat: Surviving winter’s challenges

Winter wheat did not skate through an overly easy winter as it did last year. Nevertheless, a couple more weeks will likely reveal relatively healthy wheat with a few exceptions.

Most winter wheat has likely survived the winter in reasonably good shape. However, it will likely be a few weeks before anyone can know for sure. There were repeated instances where some wheat was exposed to frigid temperatures following a warm spell that removed all snow cover. However, the duration of warm temperatures that proceeded these periods were not likely enough to significantly wake the crop from its dormancy.

Of greater concern in some locals were the wide swings in temperatures that caused recurring pockets of flooding and ice-sheeting within fields. The effects of this type of stress can be cumulative. These pockets may also be more susceptible to plant/root heaving due to multiple freezing and thawing cycles that often occur throughout March.

Unfortunately, it will still take a while before its known whether patches of wheat have succumbed to winter stresses. The best evidence of survival is the initiation of new root growth. Unfortunately, this growth usually occurs one to two weeks after green-up. Prior to this, wheat can actually exhibit above-ground growth and then fail if new roots are not generated.

Growers having wheat stands that are delayed or thin, or that have spots of winter-kill, may want to consider a relatively early application of 20 to 30 pounds of fertilizer nitrogen to encourage growth. They would also do well to consider an under-seeding of red clover. Michigan State University Extension recommends broadcasting approximately 10 pounds per acre around the time of green-up.

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