Freeze hits corn, wheat crops

The early diagnosis on the damage done by an Easter weekend freeze in the lower Southeast is that the region's wheat crop took a much bigger hit than corn, which was still in the early stages of growth.

In north Alabama's Tennessee Valley, where temperatures dipped to about 20 degrees F., Auburn University Extension agronomist Charlie Burmester says the wheat crop may be “too far gone” to be saved.

“We've just had too much cold weather here,” said Burmester in mid-April. “Wheat was about three weeks ahead of normal anyway, and we're already seeing some of the heads turning white.”

Growers in the area had planted more wheat than usual, he says, because of the favorable prices.

North Alabama's corn crop is a more hopeful situation, says Burmester. “We may have to replant some of the corn crop. Some of the earlier planted crop was further along, and the freeze knocked it back. About 90 percent of the crop had been planted when the freeze hit,” he says.

In a region known primarily for cotton production, many growers were switching to corn this year, he adds. “We had estimated that our cotton acreage would be down by about 50 percent this year, with growers turning to wheat, soybeans and corn, but mostly corn,” he says.

Heath Potter, an Extension agent for Colbert, Lauderdale and Lawrence counties says a percentage of the wheat crop will recover, but maturity will be delayed. In Lawrence County, corn that was beyond the sixth or seventh leaf stage was killed, but the younger crop should survive, says Potter.

Mark Hall, a regional Extension agent in northwest Alabama reports that wheat and corn in Limestone, Madison and Morgan counties suffered severe damage. Thomas D. Atkinson with the Madison County FSA office says the wheat crop in the county appears to be a total loss while the corn crop suffered an approximate 50-percent loss.

Growers in Georgia also were greeted by a hard freeze during the Saturday and Sunday morning of Easter Weekend. Average highs in the state had been running in the upper 70s to the lower 80s until the cold front moved in, dropping highs to the 50s and 60s and lows to freezing and below.

“West of I-75, we're seeing a lot of burnt tissue and some stand loss on corn,” says Dewey Lee, University of Georgia Extension small grains specialist. “East of I-75, the damage is worse because low temperatures were down in the 26 to 27-degree range — there were sustained below-freezing temperatures for five or six hours.”

Damage varies according to specific location, he says, but 20 to 25 percent of the wheat, rye and oats were heading in some fields. Georgia farmers planted 400,000 acres of wheat this season.

“A lot of our corn is still in the recovery phase,” says Lee. “It remains to be seen how it will come out. But there was severe damage in the Statesboro area in east Georgia and it was extremely cold in north Georgia.”

Statewide, Georgia farmers planted 100 percent more corn this year than in 2006.

Growers whose wheat was damaged substantially by the cold temperatures might want to consider the currently strong market for hay as one option for recouping part of their lost income, he says.

Lee doesn't believe much of Georgia's corn crop will have to be replanted, and he advises producers to “carry on” with their weed control programs and other crop management plans.

“They should continue managing this crop and keep in mind that they lost a lot of leaf tissue to the freezing temperatures. Physiologically, much of this corn won't appear as old as it actually is. But growers should stick with their programs, especially for weed control. They should remember to control weeds and not worry aabout plant height. Visually, this corn just won't appear to be its actual age.

“This should allow growers to split their nitrogen applications and protect against the risk of leaching rainfalls later in the season. I'm advising growers not to give up on this corn crop,” he says.

The freezing temperatures that settled over most of Georgia on Easter weekend also severely damaged the peach and blueberry crops, and University of Georgia agricultural specialists say they may not know its effects completely until later in the year.

About 90 percent of Georgia's 15,000 acres of peaches grow in middle Georgia, where temperatures dipped into the mid- to upper-20s. This was enough to hurt the pea- to nickle-sized fruit, said Kathy Taylor, a UGA Cooperative Extension peach specialist. Of the crop there, 45 percent remains in good condition. In south Georgia, 60 percent of the crop is in good shape.

As for the state's vegetable crop, farmers had planted more than half the expected 30,000 acres of watermelons when the freeze hit. Early assessments indicate the crop may have dodged a bullet and will be okay, says George Boyhan, University of Georgia Extension vegetable specialist.

“But I think there may still be a price to pay on the watermelons with delayed harvest and perhaps reduced yield,” Boyhan says. “We'll have to wait and see.”

The freeze didn't hurt vegetable crops like broccoli and leafy greens. “They're used to those kinds of temperatures,” says Terry Kelley, Extension vegetable specialist.

But farmers had already planted most of the warm-season vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and snap beans. There are isolated fields with damage, says Kelley, but overall, the warm-season vegetables should be fine.

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