ROXANA HEGEMAN Associated Press
WICHITA - Subzero cold forecast to sweep into the Plains next week threatens to damage winter wheat across much of Nebraska and north-central Kansas in places where there is little snow to provide crops a protective cover, agriculture experts warned Friday.
Temperatures are expected to dip to a low of between minus 5 to minus 15 in those areas by Monday, said Don Keeney, agricultural meteorologist for Maryland-based commodity risk firm MDA Weather Services.
Some freeze damage is likely to hit about 15 to 20 percent of the Plains wheat belt, Keeney said. The region generally encompasses Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas and eastern Colorado.
"I expect there is going to be pretty widespread potential for damage, and so we are going to watch it pretty closely," said Justin Gilpin, chief executive officer for the industry group Kansas Wheat. "But we won't know the full extent really until that plant goes to green back up in the spring."
Winter wheat in northern states such as Montana and the Dakotas for the most part are not in as great a risk from the subzero temperatures, because fields in those states are protected by a thick blanket of snow now on the ground.
Generally, a couple of inches of snow are sufficient to protect winter wheat when temperatures dip as low as minus 4 degrees. But wheat needs at least 4 inches of snow cover to protect it when temperatures get much colder.
"Four inches and above, it can get as cold as it wants and it is not going to hurt it, but a couple of inches isn't going to be enough when it gets to 10 or 15 below," Keeney said.
While more snow forecast across nearly all the Midwest wheat belt this weekend should help insulate the crop, the snow cover is expected to remain thin across a large swath of the Plains by the time frigid temperatures hit. Between 1 million and 1.2 million acres of winter wheat across much of Nebraska and north-central Kansas are at risk of some freeze damage, he said.
The quick moving cold front is expected to surge into the central Plains on Monday morning, but the subzero temperatures are not expected to last more than a day or two before it begins warming up again.
It is still too early to gauge any effect on wheat prices, because the market right now is more focused on world wheat numbers, export numbers and demand numbers and hasn't turned their full attention to the coming crop yet, Gilpin said.
But Keeney said that if the freeze is as bad as forecast, it might cause "a little ripple effect" now on prices and the market will take notice.
"Once we get into spring and farmers are able to get into the field and see the damage ... if it is that bad, then obviously I think we will see a bigger market jump at that point," Keeney said.