Mild early winter may complicate grain harvests

Senior Editor

(Jan. 12, 2016) In the wake of an uncommonly warm early winter, a Virginia Tech small grain specialist is hoisting red flags about small grain crops in the fields. In advance of the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s annual ag conference Jan. 26-27, Virginia Tech’s Wade Thomason said that with one of the warmest Decembers in recent history — not to mention the preceding November — “lots of small grain fields have produced more growth than we normally expect for this time of year” and that has raised some concerns about managing the crop.
“The likelihood of foliar disease, especially powdery mildew, is higher with a thicker canopy so scouting these fields early and more often in the spring is prudent.
“Freeze damage to the canopy and lost leaf area is more likely this year,” he added. “This probably isn’t a major issue unless there is so much leaf mass that it mats and smothers the growth underneath. Overall though, I don’t expect it to be much of a concern.”
A much greater concern, he said, is that if the warm weather continues as days lengthen. “We could arrive at jointing much earlier than normal. If freeze occurs and damages the growing point, then that tiller aborts and no head is produced.
“This can result in major or minor losses depending on how many tillers are damaged and when it occurs. Unfortunately I don’t think there is much we can do to prevent this.”
Thomason said there are other things to consider:
“Even in fields with yellowing from (nitrogen) deficiency I think we should withhold any more N until mid-late February if excessive growth is present.”
Mowing can slow small grain development and can prevent mid-season lodging by taking three-to four inches off the top of the plant.
“How much this delays development is debatable, but I expect it’s not much more than seven to 10 days, so the real value probably lies in preventing mid-season lodging.
“The amount of growth will dictate how much of a concern this actually is.
“Of course,” Thomason added, “this adds cost and requires careful attention to how the residue is distributed after mowing. It may also cause trouble with crop insurance, so for anyone considering this option. it’s definitely worth a call to the company to find out.
“Grazing can accomplish the same outcome with very little expense,” Thomason concluded, “ but care needs to be exercised to ensure that animals aren’t in the field when it’s too wet, causing damage to the stand.”