Sub-zero temps raise new fears over wheat crop

BELLE PLAINE — An arctic blast that brought subzero temperatures and punishing winds across the Kansas plains has raised new fears for the already drought-stressed winter wheat crop.

The storm dropped massive amounts of snow in eastern Kansas but offered little moisture in the parched western counties where the bulk of the wheat is grown.

Without a protective snow cover the crop is especially vulnerable to the frigid temperatures that have settled across the state, experts say. Western Kansas counties only got about an inch of dry, powdery snow — too little to replenish depleted soil moisture the plants will need when they break dormancy in the spring or to even plant another crop then.

The full extent of winterkill and wind damage won't be known until spring when plants green up, said Kansas State University wheat specialist Jim Shroyer.

"They didn't get much snow out west where they needed it," Shroyer said. "If there is no snow cover those temperatures can move pretty quickly down."

Not only do dry soils cool down more quickly, but the winds dry the soil out more and allow the temperature to penetrate, he said. It also exacerbates soil erosion.

Wheat grower Roger Beesley holds out little hope for the 1,300 acres of winter wheat he planted last fall near Gove in western Kansas. It was so dry that 90 percent of his wheat never came up. It hasn't even softened, much less germinated.

He plans to have an insurance adjuster look at his fields next month before he decides whether to replant, assuming there is even enough soil moisture to do that come spring.

"I don't think anything now will do much to save the wheat crop," Beesley said.

A good snowfall now, however, would have helped bolster soil moisture for spring-planted crops.

Beesley said he is disappointed the storm didn't bring more than an inch or so of snow in western Kansas. Even that was so terribly dry that he could sweep it off the sidewalk with a broom. And with winds blowing at 40 mph, what little snow that fell was quickly blown off wheat fields.

"The chance of us having any kind of a wheat crop or any kind of a wheat yield is pretty low right now," Beesley said.

About 37 percent of the winter wheat crop in Kansas was in poor to very poor condition late last month, Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service reported on Monday. About 36 percent was in fair condition with 25 percent rated as good and just 2 percent excellent.

The agency also reported that topsoil moisture was short to very short in 59 percent of the state as of Sunday.

"The final impact remains to be seen, but it does raise fears," said Dan O'Brien, a Kansas State University economist. "We had concerns about the viability of a good number of acres of wheat before this storm came."

Such fears have put prices at near-record levels on some commodity markets, he said.

Other factors such as problems with overseas production, the declining value of the dollar and the dwindling amounts of food quality wheat were already driving up wheat prices.