Freezes take a toll on Texas wheat, but some still has potential
A late March and three April freezes have hit wheat in its advanced growing stages. But some of the crop still has potential for moderate and good grain production, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialists after canvassing three primary wheat growing regions.
“Much of what we saw through April 22 was still in fair to good condition,” said Calvin Trostle, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension agronomist from Lubbock, after traveling throughout the South Plains and Panhandle on April 17 to 18. “Overall, many wheat fields may not be managed differently, but grain yields will drop in some and in others, a significant amount has been converted from grain-production intentions to hay.”
But, he warned, the total picture will be revised yet again by May 1, as another hard freeze occurred April 23 to 24. “We are concerned as some wheat was in boot stage, and emerging heads in some cases.”
Brad Easterling, AgriLife Extension agent in Sherman County, said, “Each week more heads develop, freeze and get killed. Our yield is dropping faster than the plants can compensate.”
Some considerations producers will make to determine the final destination of the wheat will be hay prices and seed wheat needs.
Wheat hay prices appear to be relatively good at this point, Trostle said, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Amarillo Hay Market Report reporting on April 19 that new wheat forage contracts were $160 per large bales and $8 per bale for small squares.
The report, however, does not reflect differences in forage stage of growth. This is important, he adds, because younger, boot-stage wheat hay may be several percentage points higher in crude protein than wheat that is headed out.
Clark Neely, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension small grains and oilseed specialist from College Station, and Trostle also noted concerns about the prospects of Texas High Plains’ seed blocks that will produce planting seed for the fall 2013 crop.
“Early indications suggest that seed growers are going to try to hang on for grain even if grain yield prospects are greatly reduced, but the lure of ‘bird-in-the-hand’ forage yields and hay income could pinch seed supplies later this year,” Trostle said.
He said producers who plan to continue with grain production need to continue monitoring fields.
“For starters, pick two areas of the field, opposite areas, and randomly select 20 stems. If there is dead leaf, no cutting required, the growing point is dead. If you find in the 20 stems that 18 are good and only two are dead, then you have an idea that things are largely okay. Repeat on the other end of the field.
“Likewise, if four are good and 16 are bad, then you also know you likely now have a hay crop instead of a grain crop,” he said. “If, however, you find 11 and nine, or eight and 12, then take another 20 stems and keep going until you have a good picture of the conditions. Don’t get discouraged if this is what it takes to accurately assess a field. Patience will help, as will writing down notes to help remember observations.”
Trostle and Neely said producers brought in wheat with growing points that were a mix of dead and healthy to meetings across the South Plains, Panhandle and Rolling Plains regions on April 17 to 18.
At the time, they estimated anywhere from 5 to 10 percent average grain loss in the central and lower South Plains to as high as 40 to 50 percent loss in the north central and northeast Panhandle due to the repeated freezes. This would be added to the 10 to 20 percent decrease in yields expected in Central Texas from a March freeze.
Neely said maturity ranged from mid-jointing to flowering at the first April freeze, sometimes within the same field. South Plains’ wheat was in the boot stage, with a few fields beginning to flower. High Plains wheat was later, mid-jointing, but still far enough along to experience damage. Rolling Plains temperatures were not as severe, but much of the wheat was flowering and at the most vulnerable development stage.
Wheat is generally more sensitive as it goes through the various stages, he said. At the jointing stage, damage can occur when temperatures drop to 22 degrees; at the boot stage, 28 degrees; heading, 30 degrees; and flowering, 32 degrees.
Normally, producers can anticipate potentially significant freeze damage after two hours of exposure to those temperatures, Neely said. However, temperatures and field conditions—moisture, wind and elevation and stage of growth—can vary between and within fields, which can and does impact the amount of freeze damage.
The hardest hit area during the April 17 to 18 scouting was in the Ochiltree County area, Trostle said. Samples and the drive-by observation of fields there were dominated by collapsed canopies and damaged stems, especially on younger wheat.
“We believe the issue of susceptibility in this case was the initial tenderness of young tillers that are potentially more susceptible to freeze damage,” he said. “Stems were collapsed on many plants, and some just appeared ragged, especially on the bottom of the plant.”
Wheat that went down after the April 10 freeze had not shown signs of standing back up, he said. This, combined with significant presence of dead growing points, compounds the reduced regrowth or recovery potential of yield or even harvestable forage.
“It is quite possible that half of the fields in the Perryton area may go to hay,” Trostle said.
Scott Strawn, AgriLife Extension agent in Ochiltree County, said, “Before the last freeze, I expected 75 to 85 percent of the dryland (wheat) to be abandoned due to drought and freeze, and 25 to 30 percent of the irrigated to not be harvested for grain. After the April 24 freeze, both those figures could be higher.”
If there are no more freeze events, cooler, wetter weather may help wheat plants recover to a limited extent from freeze damage, Neely said. Unfortunately, much of the wheat-producing regions of Texas also are contending with drought, which can negatively impact yields and recovery from freeze damage.