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Dry wheat conditions raise winterkill worries

Dry conditions in Washington winter wheat fields have grain commission board members concerned about winterkill.
Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Published on November 20, 2015 11:24AM

Washington Grain Commission CEO Glen Squires and chairman Steve Classsen listen as board member Mike Miller makes a point Nov. 18 during the commission board meeting, held without electricity due to high wind storms the day before. Commission members are concerned that incoming cold temperatures will cause winterkill in winter wheat fields already stressed by dry conditions.

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

Washington Grain Commission CEO Glen Squires and chairman Steve Classsen listen as board member Mike Miller makes a point Nov. 18 during the commission board meeting, held without electricity due to high wind storms the day before. Commission members are concerned that incoming cold temperatures will cause winterkill in winter wheat fields already stressed by dry conditions.

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SPOKANE — Wheat fields are so dry in Eastern Washington that sudden colder temperatures could kill the crop, Washington Grain Commission board members say.

Several members painted worried picture during county reports at the commission board meeting Nov. 18 in Spokane. The commission met without electricity due to high wind storms through Eastern Washington the day before.

The wheat plants might look good driving by on the road, said board member Dana Herron, co-owner of Tri-State Seed in Connell, Wash., and representing Benton, Franklin, Kittias, Klickitat and Yakima counties on the commission board. But “drought-induced mortality” would be “tremendous,” Herron said.

“It’s dry and cold at the same time,” he said. “If plants have adequate hydration, it’ll take a lot of cold weather. If it’s a little bit dry, it won’t. We could have more winterkill with less cold weather this way than normal.”

Eddie Johnson, Wilbur, Wash., area farmer representing barley farmers on the commission, said the wheat doesn’t have any reserve moisture. If weather forecasts about single-digit temperatures prove true, it could affect the wheat’s availability to survive.

The wheat hasn’t had an opportunity to adjust to colder nights. Johnson said there have only been a few nights with temperatures around 20 degrees, which serve to help the plant gradually enter dormancy to survive colder climates.

“If the weather turns to single digits overnight, the wheat can’t stand that sudden blast of arctic cold,” he said.

Weather extremes are the biggest concern, said Mike Miller, Ritzville, Wash., farmer representing Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties. One of his neighbors reported peak winds of 97 mph, he said.

“It’s not just windy, it’s hurricane-force winds,” he said.

Mike Eagle, Almira, Wash., area, farmer representing Spokane, Lincoln, Ferry, Stevens and Pend Orielle counties, said the wheat plant is already stressed, and more cold would add even more.

“That plant’s pretty small, and then to get hit with the cold, I think it’s going to be pretty hard on it,” Eagle said. “There was just no moisture for it to come out of the ground.”

Farmers in Eagle’s area could plant spring wheat to replace winter wheat killed by the cold. Others don’t have that option because their soil temperature is too warm for spring crop production, he said, so would have to rely on crop insurance.

Spring wheat seed availability could become a concern. Washington’s spring wheat seed crop yielded 10 to 20 bushel yields instead of the 30 to 35 bushels anticipated, Herron said.

“If demand for spring wheat seed is higher than normal, it will be very short,” he said, advising farmers to buy spring wheat seed now.

If farmers don’t get more moisture, it could become a large concern, Herron said.

“Moisture’s moisture,” he said. “Rain, snow, sleet — we’ll take anything.”



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