Plants are looking better than expected despite brutal weather
FARGO, N.D. — At least one factor can be considered an early indication that North Dakota’s winter wheat crop might be surviving better than some people expected, considering the harsh winter, according to Blake Vander Vorst, senior agronomist with Ducks Unlimited.
DU has been advocating for the past 15 years for farmers to increase the use of winter-planted crops to help foster waterfowl nesting habitat. Vander Vorst says a group of samples he’s collected have survived almost 100 percent so far in a wide area in western North Dakota.
Vander Vorst pulled four winter wheat samples in a drive from Velva to Butte and to Wilton. On Feb. 12, he conducted a test in which the plants are placed in a bag that is filled with carbon dioxide. The plants are trimmed to encourage growth, which can be seen within a few hours.
“Our Wilton research site is in canola stubble and had good snow cover and (showed) 100 percent survival,” he says, adding they had green leaves emerging the next day.
The other three fields Vander Vorst checked were prevent-plant fields with the samples taken from “dry knobs or wind-swept slopes that all had desiccated top growth and likely open to the winter elements,” he says.
He collected 10 to 20 plants at each location. After the overnight bag test, those three samples had 40 percent, 80 percent and 90 percent growth and survival percentages.
“That’s way better than I would have expected,” Vander Vorst says.
Weather will be crucial
None of the prevent-plant field samples had green leaves, so the vigor isn’t as good as at the Wilton site, which was seeded into standing residue cover from the previous crop, Vander Vorst says. He wasn’t immediately aware of the varieties at each location.
“The weather over the next three to four weeks may determine the fate, once again, of the prevent-plant winter wheat with little surface cover this winter,” Vander Vorst says.
Vander Vorst says a record-high of 750,000 acres of winter wheat were planted in the fall of 2013, in part because it was a good fit for acres that had been too wet and had prevent-plant insurance payments in 2013.
He says farmers were reluctant to seed as many winter crops in the fall of 2012 because of dry conditions. Only 220,000 acres were planted to winter wheat in 2012, and 205,000 acres were harvested in 2013. The 2013 yield was estimated at 43 bushels per acre, down from the 55 bushels per acre in 2012, with a record-high of 700,000 acres harvested last summer.
Some farmers planted winter wheat in the fall of 2013 in part because of a requirement to plant acres at least one year out of four to continue to be eligible for prevent-plant insurance protection, Vander Vorst says.
The key to survival
Brian Fowler, a geneticist at the University of Saskatchewan, says the key indication of survival is if plants with green leaves can regenerate new roots from the crown.
“I have seen badly damaged patches in fields ‘green up’ in the spring and then die off in a couple of weeks because the plants were unable to generate new root growth in the spring,” Fowler says. “The leaves grow until the reserves in the crown are depleted and then they essentially starve to death and die off. The roots are the most tender part of the plant and are usually the first part to suffer winter damage.”
The leaf green-up followed by plant death is often attributed to late spring frost damage, but Fowler says the crown damage has always occurred in mid- to late-winter and the plants are unable to regenerate new roots in the spring. Waiting a week to 10 days will determine if Vander Vorst’s plant samples can produce new white roots, Fowler says.
Bob Fanning, South Dakota State University Extension Service agronomist in Winner, S.D., says bag tests that he and others ran in early February indicated little winter kill. He says winter wheat went into the fall with good moisture, which cuts the soil temperature fluctuations and hydrates plants for good survival. Soil temperatures did not get down to the 5 degrees Fahrenheit that winter wheat typically survives. He says there might also be some spots of winter injury where there was wind erosion.