If you're curious about how this year's wheat crop is fairing compared to wheat in normal growing conditions, here's a visual comparison:
The first photo, taken two years ago when growing conditions were optimal, is of a very healthy wheat crop with a well-developed root system. The roots are thick and the plant is well tillered (the plant produced lots of healthy tillers, or leaves, in the fall). The second photo, which was taken this week, is of a plant that is considerably smaller with an underdeveloped root system and spindly tillers.
What's the risk of having a crop with such poor root development? This raises the risk of winterkill, especially when soils remain dry. The chance of winterkill is especially high if soil temperatures fall into the single digits – like we experienced earlier this week when nighttime temps fell to 5 degrees F. When temperatures in the top 1-2 inches of the soil fall that low for more than a few hours, the root system can freeze and die. Total freeze damage on the crop, though, won't be known until spring when the crop starts growing again.
But if you talk to area agronomists and farmers, the biggest risk to the crop isn't from freezing, but from desiccation, or dying from lack of moisture.
Our state agronomist recently described our problem best: "It's my professional opinion that your wheat is suffering from the lack of water."