Wild April weather hits area farmers, gardeners

4/30/2013

By SCOTT AUST

By SCOTT AUST

saust@gctelegram.com

April's wacky weather, which swung from temperatures in the 60s and 70s on the weekends to midweek lows in the 20s, played havoc with everyone from backyard gardeners to farmers worried about their wheat crops.

Debbie Wharton, of Wharton's For Every Bloomin' Thing in Garden City, said the cold snap slowed everybody down "big time."

"Nobody wants to have to replant. Blossoms are so important and everybody wants them to be beautiful and blooming right off the bat, and that can't happen if they're frozen," she said.

Wharton said the cold snaps can do some cosmetic damage to things like shrubs and permanent plants, but can freeze annual plants right to the roots if a gardener isn't careful.

Wharton said she normally has a couple of customers who plant too early, but the swings this April slowed down even some of the die-hard gardeners.

"I know of probably two people who have tomatoes out and they're doing well. But they knew how to take care of them. They've got them covered and know how to manage it. It's a matter of managing it," she said. "People will get caught back up and it will be crazy in the month of May and maybe into June."

Weather can be unpredictable, but a good rule of thumb is to wait until after Mother's Day in mid-May to avoid a freeze, she said.

"But you never know. The first year I was in Kansas, in July we had a snow storm, a hail storm, a tornado and blazing heat all within a week. We can have great fluctuations in the temperature, but we're a hardy lot out here. You just keep at it," Wharton said.

Wharton's cold-season crops, like spinach, look good right now despite the cold spring. But gardening is about timing, she said.

"You shouldn't have cucumbers in the ground yet. You shouldn't have peppers or squash. Those are all things that should wait until after Mother's Day. So if you're following the gardening catalog, you're not going to get hit," she said.

The weekly freezes may have more of an impact on local wheat farmers.

Kurt Werth, Gray County Extension agent, said there's bound to be some loss of yield in the area wheat crop, both irrigated and dryland, due to April's several periods of hard freeze, though the extent won't be known until about 10 days after the last freeze event.

But Werth said by a rough, ballpark estimate irrigated crops could see a 20 to 25 percent yield loss while dryland crops push higher, possibly around a 50 percent loss.

"I've never seen three cold snaps like this in the 20 years I've been a county agent. I really don't know how bad the damage is," Werth said. "I'm hoping next week I'll be able to get out in the fields and see how many of the tillers were killed."

Tillers are the growing point of the wheat plant, and the plant can put on several rounds of tillers, though each successive one is smaller with smaller grains, which results in yield reduction.

The swings between warm and cold over the last month will definitely make a difference in the yield, Werth said, because of the stress placed on the plant. When it warms up, the plant "tries to go gangbusters" and grow, then it shuts back down when it freezes.

"We've also had no moisture, so it depletes any reserve it had in the roots," he said, which makes the plant doubly stressed.

"I can't tell you we killed all the wheat, but it (darn) sure knocked the yield back," Werth said.

John Holman, K-State agronomist in Garden City, agreed the freeze has done damage to the wheat crop, but the ongoing drought and lack of moisture continues to be the biggest problem for western Kansas farmers.

"The crop is sure getting kicked around a lot," he said. "This wheat crop is probably one of the worst looking wheat crops we've had in a long time. Everything from freeze damage, drought, a lot of mite damage, wheat streak mosaic. Just a lot of different things are hurting this crop."

Holman said it's a little early to estimate April's impact on wheat yield, but he agreed there will be an impact because the cold has caused crop development to be behind where it should be.

However, Holman believes it may be difficult to tell what's freeze impact and what's drought impact because the drought has been so bad.

"It's going to be hard to detect freeze damage under a poor crop because drought will mask it," he said. "Without water, you just don't have any crop at all."

Werth said April's weather mainly affected the wheat crop, but it could cause delays for planting other crops. Some may have planted some corn, but the plants weren't out of the ground yet so they may not be affected. However, some alfalfa may have been damaged.

"I can't tell you the tonnage loss because alfalfa can take a ding and come back; it just moves harvest back," Werth said. "Usually we start cutting down the first hay by the 15th to 20th of May. It may be close to the end of May before we take that first cutting."

Alan Geier, Garden City parks superintendent, said time will tell what kind of damage has been done to the city's parkland, trees and flowers. He said the biggest concern, as it is for agriculture, is the impact of the extended drought. Because of April's periods of hard freeze, the city wasn't able to use its irrigation system normally.

"April 15 is usually our last hard freeze, but it just kept coming and coming," he said. "We had some record high temperatures and some record low temperatures. The plants think it's time to wake up, it's spring. I would say the big wide swings, pushing 80 then back down to 20, were the hardest."

The biggest concern has been trees. Geier said the drought has caused the loss of many trees, mostly young, non-established ones, despite frequent hand watering during warm spells during the winter. As a result, the city intends to plant about 50 trees in coming weeks.

"The jury's still out (on freeze damage), but I'll know more in mid-May. The redbuds had started blooming and also some of the pear trees. The frost knocked the flowers off so there may not be any fruit or good spring color, but the trees may be okay," he said.

The park's grass areas have some freeze damage at the top in areas that had started to green up, but Geier thinks the parks department may be able to bring those areas back as long as the roots are okay.

"What's looking bad now, with some irrigation, it might surprise us," he said.

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