Drought Affects Much of Panhandle Wnter Wheat Crop; Much Depends on Winter Weather

Drought Affects Much of Panhandle Wnter Wheat Crop; Much Depends on Winter Weather

December 20, 2012

Drought and winds have affected much of western Nebraska’s 2013 winter wheat crop, UNL Extension educators and specialists say. Some fields are bare, others have thinner than usual stands, and in others the plant growth is slower than normal.

John Thomas

Dipak Santra
Dipak Santra

Karen DeBoer
Karen DeBoer

But the crop condition varies from one location to another, they say, and the fate of the 2013 crop will depend largely on the weather between now and harvest, especially precipitation and wind.

Western Nebraska has been in a severe drought all year — Scottsbluff remains under 7 inches of precipitation for 2012, less than half the average — and many areas have received almost no precipitation since winter wheat was planted beginning in September.

In Box Butte County in the northern Panhandle, Extension Educator John Thomas said the condition of wheat fields varies with the circumstances. In general, wheat that was planted earlier, and on fallow ground, was able to achieve some growth, he said. Wheat planted later — for example, into harvested fields that had been in dry edible beans — usually has poorer stands and lags in growth stage.

Dryland fields that had produced a crop just prior to planting often have less stored water than fallow fields, Thomas noted.

Thomas said wheat seed dealers around Box Butte County reported that some growers have had to replant or perform supplemental planting to beef up stands in some areas.

As for future prospects, “A local wheat seed supplier here said if we have normal moisture from here on out we could have a pretty decent, at least average, wheat crop,” Thomas said. “If it continues extremely droughty, ground that has more moisture is going to offer up a better wheat crop.”

Seed dealers also have noted that more winter wheat was planted under center pivot irrigation systems, Thomas said. Those growers have an option: if the area receives more precipitation, they could consider the wheat a winter cover crop, tear it out in the spring, and plant another crop that would use more water. If it remains dry, they can leave the wheat and produce a crop from that.

“You can cut back irrigation with wheat, and while you might not get a bumper crop, at least you’ll get a crop,” he said. “Wheat is a tough crop. It can take a lot of punishment and still end up with an average to decent crop.”

UNL Crop Extension Breeding Specialist Dipak Santra, who oversees wheat variety trials in the Panhandle, also reported variable crop conditions from one area to the next. Santra cooperates with growers in Box Butte, western Scotts Bluff, Kimball, and Cheyenne counties who host variety test plots.

The Kimball County site is in fair condition, but crop emergence is variable, according to Santra, who said this was common.

In western Scotts Bluff County near the Wyoming state line, seeds were planted as deep as possible, in hopes of reaching subsurface stored moisture. There was zero emergence, probably because of dry soil, he said. Nearby farmers’ fields also look empty, Santra said. “It looks like they’ll have to replant with a spring crop,” he said.

At UNL’s High Plains Ag Laboratory near Sidney, wheat variety plots “are in fair to good condition, but there is significant variation in emergence and plant growth, primarily because of soil moisture variability,” he said. “Basically it all comes to amount of soil moisture,” Santra said. “How much was there?”

Around mid-December, Santra observed a number of wheat fields between Scottsbluff and Sidney. He saw many that had been planted late and were lagging in growth stage. The crop is likely to suffer further if winter turns out to be dry, cold, open and windy. But milder temperatures with some moisture in late winter or early spring could allow the crop to catch up, he said.

Where the terrain is hilly, Santra said, wheat stands vary greatly between high and low areas. Around hilltops, emergence is typically around 20%, but in the lower areas it’s more like 80%.

Extension Educator Karen DeBoer of Sidney said wheat condition in the south is dependent on moisture. Some seed emerged, and some rotted in the soil, she said. Some producers reseeded areas earlier in the fall, and more area may be reseeded in the spring if necessary, DeBoer said.

When the crop comes out of dormancy in the spring, producers will need to assess how much of the crop is left and make a decision about whether to reseed, she said.

DeBoer has observed some wheat damage from blowing soil, and said growers might need to do some emergency tillage in the event of a big wind event just to keep the soil from blowing.


Resources are available on-line to help farmers with emergency tillage and reseeding decisions.

For more information on reseeding decisions erosion control, and how to estimate winter wheat yields see an Oct. 23 CropWatch article by DeBoer and Extension Cropping Specialist Bob Klein of the UNL West Central District.

Also see an archived Feb. 11, 2009 CropWatch article on reseeding wheat in the spring following a tough winter.

A UNL Extension NebGuide, Emergency Wind Erosion Control (G2006), covers temporary techniques for emergency wind erosion control, when time is short and more desirable practices haven't provided soil or seedlings adequate protection.

David Ostdiek, Communications Specialist
UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center. Scottsbluff