The story on the wheat crop this year hasn't improved much in the last few weeks. And with winter closing in fast, things are getting a bit worrisome.
We still haven't received any meaning precipitation since planting in September and early October, save for a couple of rains of 0.05-0.10". Fields since then have only gotten drier.
As a result, stands of wheat in our area of western Kansas – the region deemed the driest in Kansas – are highly variable with many stands thinly or poorly developed due to the dry soil conditions. Of most concern are the greatly underdeveloped roots.
If you walk out into virtually any field in the western third of Kansas and pull up a few plants, you'll find something very concerning – there just aren't any roots worth writing home about.
Wheat plant with underdeveloped root system. This can lead to nutrient deficiency and winterkill problems later on.
The crown of the root, which is the part of the root system that is closest to the soil surface where the roots and tillers emerge, is the big problem. Without any soil moisture, the plants are fighting like mad to put down roots and establish tillers. With the crown underdeveloped and the roots not reaching deeper levels in the soil where more nitrogen awaits, plants are facing yet another problem – nutrient deficiency.
So in addition to lack of water, the crop is now battling an additional problem of a lack of nutrients.
But the problems this winter won't stop there.
K-State agronomist Jim Shroyer, who recently stopped by our farm on a tour of fields in western Kansas, pointed out yet another concern for this year's crop. Soil moisture typically buffers temperature swings during the winter and acts as a protective insulation for the plant. Without moisture in the soil, Jim says, the crown is more vulnerable to freezing temperatures and winterkill.
Fields with poor stands are also going to be susceptible to blowing this winter and next spring if no precipitation develops, he says, since there are fewer plants with a decent root system and tillers to hold the soil in place and protect it from high winds. The toughest looking fields he's seen are the ones planted shallow or late – and there are definitely a lot of those in the area.
About the only thing we can hope for this late in the season is for Mother Nature to change her mind and bring some good snow cover and mild temperatures this winter. But judging by how uncooperative she's been this year, we're not counting on it.