Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

Winter and Spring Wheat crops threatened by drought

If you are feeling a bit uneasy about our intense sunshine and high temperatures, you are not alone. Plant communities are struggling as well. And while we can water lawns, gardens and orchards with hoses and sprinklers, dry land soft white wheat growers in our region rely on rain.

With less than normal rainfall, the local soil is dry from low levels of precipitation last year and this past winter. The roots of wheat on the surrounding hills are getting stressed That stress goes straight up into the lush green growth we see and into the hearts and minds of farmers and their families.

Dr. Drew Lyon, Professor, WSU's Endowed Chair Small Grains Extension and Research, said climate indicators for the area are breaking records. "This March and April were historically the driest since we have kept records."

"I'm not sure what is more stressed by lack of rain, the farmers or the wheat," said WSU Regional Extension Agronomist, Aaron Esser. "And the constant wind is causing us to lose even more moisture."

The weather could and will change as it always does. However, the use of global satellites and precise computer modeling that looks to the past to predict the most minute indications of future trends can enable scientists to make extremely accurate predictions. According to a May 2021 report from the Office of the Washington State Climatologist (OWSC), La Niña conditions remain in the equatorial Pacific Ocean and the three-month outlook for May through July has increased chances of above-normal temperatures for eastern WA.

"Extremes are more common now, we hit both of them more often," said Lyon. "We've had the five wettest years since 2000 and the driest ones since 2012. Dryland growers have always dealt with variability and adapt accordingly but these conditions are what the future holds."

Michelle Hennings, Executive Director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers based in Ritzville, said there are excellent new drought-resistant wheat varieties developed by WSU with more to come.

Dr. Mike Pumphrey, WSU's O.A. Vogel Endowed Chair of Spring Wheat Breeding and Genetics released a new premium noodle soft wheat named Ryan in 2014. Since then, he said Ryan has become the number one most widely planted spring wheat in Washington.

"We are always looking for new lines that can tolerate dry years," he said. "Those were relatively hot dry years and trials with Ryan were selected for diverse environments."

"Whether we have an early, dry hot year or a late, wet, cool year, Ryan has been at the absolute top of the line for spring wheat yields," Pumphrey said. "It's high yielding in a lot of different conditions."

But heat nevertheless takes a toll on crops. After too many consecutive days of high temperature growing, wheat can develop a blue hue and "head out", producing kernels too early resulting in lower yields.

Drought is the most significant stress factor limiting plant life. A reduction in soil moisture ultimately affects how roots transport biochemical processes and nutrients affecting the growth rate and development of the economically important portions of plants such as fruits, grains and leaves. In all agricultural eco-systems, drought has a detrimental effect on crop production.

There is rarely an ideal soil moisture in any year and dry land growers work with what the sun and rain provide. Winter wheat got a better start months ago having more moisture in the soil but both winter and spring wheat are facing challenges if acutely dry conditions continue.

"Wheat is resilient," said Mark Welter, Blue Mt. Business Unit Manager at The McGregor Company in Waitsburg. "We say 'get in fertilizer in the fall so the plant can get a good root system going'. Those roots can dig deep to find the moisture that is available." He acknowledges that it was not a great winter to reload the soil profile but feels the winter wheat has dug deep.

Waitsburg farmer Neal Carpenter believes the local wheat is a week ahead of normal. He isn't seeing the blue hue around the area indicating plant stress but if conditions stay dry that may change.

"Rain and cooler temperatures definitely would help," he said. "And the way we're farming now, no till and minimum till leaving residue, keeps more moisture in the soil. It has also taken my erosion to zero."

Some good news, Carpenter is reading that the jet stream may be dropping southward and modifying the larger weather systems of the Pacific Ocean leading to cooler temperatures for a spell.

Unlike the Waitsburg area crops, Esser said he is already seeing the blue-tinged wheat in Adams and Lincoln counties. He said wheat is bred to produce grain and is in survival mode by heading out early. "It's like watching a car wreck in slow motion," he said, monitoring the soil and forecasts.

During harvest, wheat is examined for weight, grain quality, density and protein levels to provide data for pricing. Warehouse and export specifications can downgrade drought affected wheat since it negatively affects performance for domestic and international millers and bakers. It may still be too early to predict the outcome to our current dry weather.

"People think the crop looks good and are staying positive," said Welter. "Different varieties do want to shut down in this heat, plants have defense mechanisms. We are hoping a little rain carries us. We still have a long way to go."


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