Rollercoaster weather threatening Virginia wheat

Associate Editor

(March 21, 2017) Virginia wheat growers are on edge after a winter storm interrupted this month’s unseasonably warm temperatures, threating a potentially vulnerable wheat crop, farmers said last week.
“The past two nights, it was cold enough to injure a lot of the wheat in the Delmarva territory and cause freeze damage to the heads,” Tyler Franklin, a seedsman in Essex County, said March 15. “Freeze injury is a real risk we have each year. Nothing’s consistent in our weather anymore. … A lot of our crops are susceptible to injury and stress because of the swings in temperature.”
A major winter storm moved up the East Coast early last week, dumping several inches of snow and wintry mix on much of Virginia and the coastal Mid-Atlantic region.
Temperatures dipped beneath the freezing point at night for the rest of the week after several weeks of essentially spring weather that reached into the 70s. The planting date and maturity of the variety are particularly important, Franklin said.
Early planters could be vulnerable if the crop’s heads have emerged above ground.
“Unfortunately, there’s not much to do as far as management goes unless it’s cross your fingers or pray,” said Wade Thomason, a professor in Virginia Tech’s crop and soil environmental sciences department.
Thomason said it was too soon to determine whether the wheat crop suffered from the cold, though he said he’d seen dead rye heads already.
Farmers need to wait several days to sufficiently determine the health of their crop after a freeze, he said.
He said he encountered some concerned farmers who asked whether withholding nitrogen fertility (to slow the crop’s growth and emergence) was a good idea.
Thomason said no.
“At this point, temperature is really driving the bus, driving the rate of development,” he said. “I think all we’re doing (by reducing nitrogen) is potentially starving the crop at a time when it’s probably going to need it.”
Spring freezes have caused significant damage to Virginia wheat crops. Freeze damage last year pushed the state’s wheat harvest to 9.28 million bushels, down about a third from the previous year due to cold weather, according to the state department of agriculture.
Franklin said it’s important to check the crop’s health after cold weather, however, because if significant damage is caught early enough, a farmer can abandon it and plant corn or soybeans early.
“What I’m recommending to farmers is just to get out there and scout,” he said.