Despite recent flirtations of precipitation in parts of the state, the potential of the 2018 southwest Kansas winter wheat crop is very much in doubt.

Much of this year's crop was planted later than usual due to a lack of precipitation, as well as a severe outbreak of the pathogenic fungus Wheat Streak Mosaic. Warmer temperatures could also allow the wheat curl mite, which transmits the fungus, to survive and infect the new crop.

A steady drought has squeezed the moisture out of the topsoil so root systems plunge seeking water hidden at deeper levels. Greg Ruehle, president and CEO of Servi-Tech in Dodge City, said a decent soil moisture level is found nearly a foot beneath the topsoil. He said he has heard depths as much as 18 inches south and east of Dodge City.

"Without rain the plant will not have a chance to grow those roots down to the point that it can even access that subsoil moisture," Ruehle said.

Across the state fields that are normally starting to fill out bare spots with green are still largely barren.

"There's a crop out there. You might have to get down on your knees to see it but it's there. We should see a nice green mat of green out in the fields at this point," Ruehle said.

A good portion of the Kansas crop had barely emerged when a cold snap dipping into negative double-digits in November sent it into dormancy. In many fields, tillering was just beginning so the root systems were shallow. The shallow root system, coupled with extremely dry soil, increases the likelihood of winterkill.

Without a protective layer of snow, winter wheat can be just as susceptible to damage as other crops. According to geospatial data analysis group Radiant Solutions, widespread winterkill occurred across the area when lows slipped into negative figures for three consecutive days.

According to the National Weather Service, the temperature in the early morning hours of the new year the temperature bottomed out at -9 degrees. This followed a low of -5 degrees the night before.

The snow insulates from the harsh wind of southwest Kansas and drastic temperature drops.

"In the winter wheat is in a very fragile state, and snow cover is like a blanket," Ruehle said.

The wheat showed promise last September when the area received rainfall that was, at least temporarily, near average. Just over 1.5 inches fell that month, but that proved to be the final show of the season. Since September 2017, the area has seen only about a half-inch of precipitation - including a span in November and December with almost no measurable precipitation.

The potential for winterkill damage has many farmers worried about what they will find in fields when wheat breaks dormancy next spring.

"It still has a chance," Ruehle said. "We're impacting yield by staying dry. Wheat is a resilient plant so there's still a lot of reason for optimism, but that window is closing. We just need a weather pattern that will allow that crop the moisture it needs to grow when temperatures warm enough to allow growing conditions return."

The prolonged drought not only impacts wheat crops but the ranching associated with the early growth of cold-weather forage. Ruehle said even hay supplies have tightened, and the decline in grazing options has pushed ranchers into taking their stock out of the fields sooner than expected.

According to Reuters, ranchers moved nearly five percent more cattle into feedlots than January last year, and February placements are at 108 percent of one year ago.

Analysts attribute a large part of that movement to the severe drought in southwestern Kansas, eastern Colorado, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles.

"They don't have that grazing opportunity that they typically have on wheat," Ruehle said. "This time of year the only places they're going to go is a wheat pasture or a feed lot."

According to the three-month outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, southwest Kansas is likely to see more of the same. NOAA data suggest the area will continue to see above average temperature and below average precipitation through April.

Precipitation levels are typically lower during the winter months in southwest Kansas. NOAA predicts rainfall to increase in the spring as per usual, but it might be a bit late for this year's crop to benefit.

"It's still early but very soon we should start to see how much damage there might be," Ruehle said.

Prolonged moisture depravation puts tremendous strain on the crop, slashing growth rate and, in turn, slashing crop yields and farm incomes. The stress on the wheat crop breeds economic stress for farmer and ranchers.

"Then it hits the pocket of main street," Ruehle said. "It does take a lot of faith for all of us dependent on agriculture."

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