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Published January 03, 2012, 10:13 PM

Lack of snow could pose threat to winter wheat

Warm weather has reduced need for snow cover, though
As winter marches on though, temperatures could fall further and the lack of snow cover will matter more. For now, farmers aren't worried yet.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

The lack of snow cover across North Dakota would pose a threat to the winter wheat crop planted in September, except it’s been so unusually warm, it’s no worries.

So far, at least.

Snow cover protection for winter wheat was ranked at poor across 94 percent of the state and 6 percent adequate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Fargo reported Tuesday.

The lack of snow cover also is a concern for alfalfa, a perennial grown for hay.

Snow depth statewide averaged only 0.2 inch on Jan. 1, according to the office. The state had an average of 18.3 inches of snow on the ground on Jan. 1, 2011. On Jan. 1 in 2010 and 2009, the state had an average of 11.3 inches and 17.1 inches, respectively.

On the other hand, temperatures across much of western North Dakota set record highs Tuesday, including 57 degrees in Ellendale and 55 in Bismarck, continuing the warmest winter in memory for many. Farther east, temperatures remained warm. The high in Devils Lake was 42 degrees and in Jamestown it was 46 degrees.

No worries

“I don’t think at this point there is any winter kill,” said Fran Leiphon, a Crary, N.D., farmer who is on the board of the North Dakota Wheat Commission. “I have never seen a winter like this in my lifetime, not this warm this long and with this lack of snow.”

He’s not too worried.

“I haven’t checked my own (winter wheat crop) yet,” he said Tuesday.

This year’s dry, warm fall and early winter, however, has led to another threat to winter wheat besides lack of insulation.

“The other issue is dehydration,” Leiphon said.

Again, it hasn’t driven him to go out and check on his hibernating crop, he admitted with a laugh. “You can’t do anything about it anyway.”

The weather forecast is for warmer than normal temperatures, well above zero even at night, into next week, with no significant snow fall.

That’s fine for now, Leiphon said. “But we are going to need some good snow cover to protect it from the colder temperatures.”

Advantages

Winter wheat is a minor crop in North Dakota, although it’s the main wheat grown across the United States.

The state’s farmers planted an average of 435,000 acres of winter wheat each fall from 2005 to 2009, virtually none of it in the high-value soil of the Red River Valley.

Five times that acreage is planted to durum wheat and 16 times as much to hard red spring wheat in North Dakota each year.

Still, the crop has gained acres in recent years as better farming practices and weather concerns have made it a more attractive alternative to spring-planted crops. Partly because it misses most of the damage that summer heat can do to spring wheat, winter wheat yields more.

“I would say it averages about 10 bushels more per acre,” Leiphon said.

But it also has lower protein content, meaning the price premiums for protein aren’t as high as spring wheat garners.

Leiphon has been raising winter wheat for a decade.

“We have lost very little to winter kill,” he said.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send email to slee@gfherald.com.

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