Texas wheat program suffers two-year setback from freeze
Back-to-back freezes damaged wheat across many of the wheat-producing regions of Texas. While some fields will still yield grain, major damage was done to future seed availability.
When the freezes occurred on March 28 and 29 and April 5 and 6, much of the wheat crop across the state was at susceptible-growth stages to be injured by freezing temperatures, said Dr. Gaylon Morgan, Texas AgriLife Extension Service wheat specialist in College Station.
Dr. Brent Bean, AgriLife Extension agronomist from Amarillo, said about a third of the state's crop grown north of Amarillo is still expected to have good production.
"Really the only bright spot is the wheat north of Amarillo," Bean said. "We're not going to have record yields, but we are going to make a crop."
He said wheat south of Amarillo and into the South Plains region has mixed prospects, due to drought damage that preceded the freeze damage. It finished off most dryland fields, while irrigated fields are showing damage but will still make some grain.
Todd Baughman, AgriLife Extension agronomist at Vernon, said basically all wheat from Wellington to Abilene suffered some kind of damage, either from the drought or the two freezes.
"A lot of the wheat fields north along the Red River back toward Burkburnett suffered 75 to 100 percent loss," Baughman said.
"Overall, we basically took a bad crop and made it worse," he said.
But the hardest hit might be to the wheat-seed production system due to freeze damage suffered at the Texas Foundation Seed Service south of Vernon.
"This freeze damage could have an impact throughout the system, from the research programs to the producers," said Steve Brown, director of Foundation Seed. "We have experimental lines that are frozen out, and it will take two years to get back where we were with them."
Foundation Seed does have other production locations, but "we won't harvest anything locally here due to the freeze damage," Brown said.
When wheat breeders are ready to introduce a new variety, they send it to Foundation Seed, where it goes through the certification program. Brown said there are four recognized classes of certified seed: breeder seed, foundation seed, registered seed and certified seed.
Breeders provide Brown with about 150 pounds of seed on experimental lines of wheat, which he plants to produce about 150 bushels of wheat the following year. That wheat seed is planted and will produce about 7,500 bushels the next year.
"When we roll out a new variety, we try to hit that 7,000 to 10,000 bushels of seed availability, so it can be released at all levels," Brown said.
"We have several hundred acres of wheat in various stages of production here, and every variety and experimental line was a total loss, due to the freeze," he said. "We had breeder seed increases going along with our foundation production for five or six varieties. The cold weather sterilized the plant, so it will never make a grain."
Brown said some wheat varieties showed classic symptoms of freeze damage with a white head, while others looked healthy.
"But when you start digging into the head, it has sterilized it and there will be little to no grain production," he said. "Some heads have no grain and others have a few grains in the head, but the tips of the grain are damaged and show abnormal maturity."
Morgan said based on observations, late freezes will affect seed quality in Central Texas, the Blacklands, northeast Texas and the Rolling Plains. At the growth stages the wheat was in, and with temperatures that dropped below 30 degrees for an extended time, the flowers may have been sterilized or seed development may have seized.
If the flower was sterilized, no seeds will be developed, Morgan said. However, if the wheat plant was in the seed-development stage, much of the seed will be very small and shriveled, and will not likely germinate.
"So, special precautions should be considered this year before saving seed for planting and purchasing seed," he said.
Baughman said many of the damaged fields in the Rolling Plains have turned white now, so producers can tell where that damage is, and they may already have an insurance designation from the impending drought. However, some fields will have to be held until harvest, or producers will be required to leave strips for insurance purposes.
"Some of the fields are being laid down for hay, and some of them will have some cattle turned out into them," he said. "We also have some producers who will replace the wheat with hay grazer, milo, cotton or possibly sesame, but the larger portion will be laid out for wheat next year."
Crop-damaging spring freezes don't come along too often, Baughman said, but there have been two in the past 12 years. The difference, he said, is the wheat crop in 1997 was shaping up to be a really big crop.
"The freeze timing this year was close, but the crop wasn't shaping up to be anything like the 40-plus (bushels per acre) dryland wheat crop that was shaping up that year."
Before the 1997 freeze, Baughman said long-time producers told him the last time they had had a freeze that late was in 1938.