03/19/12 — Too warm too soon?

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Too warm too soon?

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 19, 2012 1:46 PM

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Wayne County Extension Service Director Kevin Johnson checks a wheat field off Tommy's Road this morning. The county's winter wheat crop is a good one, having benefited from an early warm spell. But that has also put the crop ahead of schedule and made it susceptible to late season frosts, which could kill the seed head.

Wayne County's 30,000 acres of wheat hold the potential for a 1.65 million bushel, $10 million spring harvest.

But while the unseasonably mild weather has acted like a growth tonic for the grain, it also has left it more susceptible to cold weather -- a danger that has yet to pass.

"This is the weather that we normally expect in early May," said Kevin Johnson, Wayne County Cooperative Extension director. "Our wheat crop is growing like wildfire. At this time of year, our wheat crop does always grow, but it has been so warm all winter our wheat crop is two to three weeks ahead of where it normally is."

There is still a danger of frost -- usually until about mid-April, Johnson said.

"The farmers are getting a little concerned, I think. It is a big problem because I saw some wheat yesterday that I know some will head probably by next weekend. That is way too early. That will still be March. We would love for the heads to normally come out in the latter part of April -- April 15, April 20."

Wheat is no different than any other crop and could be greatly harmed by a frost or freeze, Johnson said.

"There is a seed head in there. It still has to go through a pollination process. If a frost came right now it would kill the pollen structures in the wheat heads. Basically it would not fertilize. There would be no kernel. It would be a head with nothing in it."

This would not be the first time weather turned and caused crop loss, Johnson said. In 2006, an Easter freeze took out 50 percent of the wheat crop. And damage does not just happen if the heads have pushed through, either.

"A cold enough temperature can still kill it," he said. "We are going to be very susceptible for the next month really."

And wheat is not the only place an early spring could mean trouble later.

"Our strawberry growers, they could potentially have a few berries in another week or two," Johnson said.

Normally the berries are ready by April 15, he said.

Those crops could be two to three weeks ahead as well, Johnson said.

"So strawberries are going to be very vulnerable to this cold weather, too," he said

Also, soil temperatures are warm enough to plant corn early, but it would be risky to do so, Johnson said. The seed is just too expensive to risk an early planting, he said.

Farmers are preparing fields for tobacco by ridging them up, but as far as crops in the fields, the biggest concern is the small grains, he said.

"If we don't have any frost or if we don't have any real cold temperatures we will be OK," Johnson said. "But there is risk. You might have noticed that some of our ornamental trees have started blooming. I think even some of the oaks are blooming. A hard freeze could definitely affect those, too."

Yards are starting to green up some and those could be affected as well, he said.

Johnson said it would be impossible to estimate what the wheat loss would be if there is a frost or freeze, but that it would be in the millions.

"That is it. It is a one-shot deal," he said. "If that happened, they wouldn't disk it under. They know it wouldn't be worth anything. They probably kill it and plant another crop into it and just try to make the best of what they have got."

The harvest could start as early as late May.

"I have seen our crops get ahead before, but when it seems when it gets down to harvest they always get back on a normal schedule," Johnson said. "It depends on when the farmer planted his wheat. I still think the bulk of the farmers will not be able to pick until June 1. Some probably could go at it that last week in May."

Another concern is rain.

"Yes, we have had some rain in the past month, but that means we have good topsoil moisture," Johnson said. "But you have probably noticed riding around if you will just look at some of the ponds and some of the creeks and swamps -- they are not at the levels that they need to be. So our groundwater is definitely low."

The county still is in need of good soaking rains, Johnson said.

"The general public might not see that because they see an inch or rain here and then get another inch of rain there," he said. "There are plenty of puddles and my yard is wet, but as far as the long-term accumulation of rain, we have not had that. That could be a problem."

Crops aren't the only thing affected by low groundwater, he said.

"It can affect us all because that is one of our sources for drinking water," he said.