- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - Concerns are mounting over freeze damage to winter wheat crops in the Southern Plains states that had broken dormancy weeks before temperatures plummeted, industry leaders said Monday.

The impact from freezing temperatures that hit the weekend of March 19-20 has begun showing up days later as once the healthy green heads of wheat turn deathly white in the days following the freeze.

It is uncertain how much of an impact that will ultimately have on harvested bushels because plants can send up secondary tillers with additional heads even though the original tiller id dead, said Aaron Harries, vice president of research and operations at the industry trade group Kansas Wheat.

But plants trying to recover from freeze damage need moisture, and the forecast for dry weather is adding to concerns, he said.

“It was a very long weekend for me - and I shouldn’t say just for me, for everyone raising wheat out here because your annual paycheck is out there,” farmer Scott Van Allen said of the days that he spent watching the temperatures fall at his farm near Clearwater, just south of Wichita.

The extent of the damage began showing up this past week in his fields, he said. One out of every 10 to 15 wheat heads that he examined had turned from green to white, indicating it had been frozen.

Most of the impact is likely in the western Kansas, Oklahoma and northern Texas, said agricultural meteorologist Kyle Tapley of MDA Weather Services.

Unseasonably hot temperatures in February caused much the wheat to come out of dormancy three to four weeks earlier than normal - making the growing crop more vulnerable to cold weather when temperatures fell below freezing earlier this month.

“It is not unusual for temperatures to get down this cold, but it is just because the crop was further along than normal,” Tapley said.

Snow that blanketed parts of Kansas this past weekend likely had less of an effect because temperatures didn’t get as cold.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported Monday that about 30 percent of the Kansas wheat crop has now grown to the stage where it is jointed, compared to an average of 16 percent for this time of year.

In its weekly update, the agency pegged wheat conditions in Kansas as 7 percent poor to very poor, 37 percent fair, 49 percent good and 7 percent excellent.

A month ago, MDA Weather Services forecast the nation’s hard red winter wheat crop at 859 million bushels, a forecast it revised downward on Thursday to 776 million bushels in the wake of the freeze coupled with the threat of drought.

In Kansas, the freeze damage appears to be confined mostly to two tiers of southern counties from Wichita to Garden City, where temperatures had ranged from the mid-20s to single digits

The tips of some wheat leaves are now starting to turn blue, a sign that could mean either freeze damage or drought stress, Harries said.

“The key to all this is that we are really, really starting to get dry,” Harries said, noting central and western Kansas in particularly is starting to dry out.

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