North Carolina’s wheat crop is a tale of two states following the hard freeze on March 15 and 16. wheat in the eastern part of the state survived and looks great, while wheat in the Piedmont is for the most part a total loss.
That’s the word from Ron Heiniger, North Carolina State University Extension cropping specialist, who expressed great disappointment because North Carolina was on track to produce its best wheat crop ever.
“It’s very disheartening,” Heiniger said. “I know a grower whose wheat was called a total loss and he is heart sick over it because he didn’t have insurance. He said, ‘what in the world am I going to do this is the second year I’ve lost my crop.’”
For farmers in the Piedmont, where Heiniger pegs damage as high as 80 to 90 percent, the most likely scenario will be to use the wheat as a cover crop and plant corn or soybeans. Heiniger said farmers will be able to use the nitrogen they applied on their wheat as starter fertilizer for their corn or soybeans.
“Wheat in eastern North Carolina survived the freeze with flying colors. The crop looks very good. The freeze hasn’t hurt our yield potential one iota. We dodged the bullet in the East,” he said.
For wheat in the eastern part of North Carolina, the cold temperatures actually helped the crop by slowing growth. “We needed it to slow down a bit,” Heiniger said. “Wheat in the East is now progressing nicely The crop is bright green and looks great, but we’re not out of the woods yet because we can still get a late spring freeze.”
Heiniger said the hope now is for seasonal temperatures in April and no late season freezes.
The situation is better in eastern North Carolina because temperatures didn’t fall below 24 degrees for any appreciable time. “That was the threshold we worried about,” Heiniger said.
The Piedmont was hit heart because temperatures did drop to 16 to 18 degrees for more than two hours on March 15 and 16. The damage was exasperated because the wheat crop was early due to an abnormally warm February in the state.
“The freeze was just early enough to be at the most vulnerable time,” Heiniger said. “Most of the wheat was in the two or three joint stage. At that stage, we can tolerate temperatures as low as 24 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours, but wheat can’t tolerate temperatures in the teens which is what happened in the Piedmont.”
Heiniger explains that wheat can survive temperatures of 24 degrees for two hours at the two or three joint stage because the sugar in the leaves acts as an insulator and reduces the threat of dangerous temperatures at the growing point level.
Heiniger did note that leaf burn following the freeze was an issue for some growers in eastern North Carolina who did not apply nitrogen fertilizer in a timely matter, but for the most part leaf burn was not an issue where nitrogen had been applied on time.
“This illustrates the importance of timely nitrogen application,” the cropping systems specialist stressed. “The nitrogen and nutrients help the wheat plants when they are stressed and struggling. Wheat that didn’t have enough nitrogen certainly showed more leaf burn compared to plants that had a good concentration of nitrogen. The nitrogen provided more insulation to those leaves.”
Heiniger said farmers who used a split application of nitrogen prior to jointing were protected from leaf burn. “This shows the importance of keeping plants healthy so they can survive these cold temperatures,” he noted.