Source: Jim Shroyer, Extension Agronomy State Leader, Kansas State University

Many fields of wheat in western Kansas are not in very good condition at the moment, primarily due to ongoing drought conditions. Some of the wheat did not emerge last fall. Of the wheat that did emerge, some has had below-average growth and development. The extreme cold this week, combined with a lack of snow cover in most of western Kansas, will not help matters.

Some producers have ripped their wheat fields to prevent blowing, and many more may be wondering whether they should be planning to abandon the fields as failed wheat and move on to a spring-planted crop. Crop insurance considerations must be taken into account when planning any such actions, of course. But what about the purely agronomic considerations?

At this time, it is too early to give up on any field of wheat, even wheat that has not yet emerged, unless you know for sure that the wheat has died. To find out if emerged wheat is still alive, simply dig up a good representative sample of plants (including roots) and bring them indoors. Live plants will begin to green up after about a week, provided they have been given some water. To find out if unemerged wheat seed is still alive, dig up some seed and see if it is still firm. If the coleoptile has begun to grow but not yet emerged, the plant may or may not still be viable. If the seed has not germinated, or only slightly cracked the seed coat, it is probably still alive. As with the plants, the only way to know for sure is to bring some of the seeds inside and see if they will come up.

If the wheat is alive but poorly developed, or if stands are thin, the difficult decisions lie ahead. For the moment, the best advice is to not give up on the wheat. With favorable conditions in the spring, even wheat with poor growth or thin stands at this point in the season can make a remarkable comeback and yield from 40 to 60 percent of normal.

It is important that producers who normally plan on topdressing their wheat with nitrogen (N) should still plan to do so, though the final rate may need to be adjusted to reflect conditions later this spring. If weather conditions become favorable this spring, the surviving plants will need N to tiller as much as possible and form as many spikelets per head as possible.

It is going to be especially important that fields planted last fall with little or no N applied preplant or at seeding have some additional N applied before green-up to stimulate potential tillering and spring growth. It may be prudent to consider a split topdress program in those fields. Apply some, 30 to 40 lbs of N, soon. Then if conditions do improve, a second application may be warranted to meet the demand from improved yield prospects. Where 20-30 pounds or more of N was applied last fall, producers can wait as long as possible (up to shortly before jointing) to evaluate stands and stand conditions before topdressing. If conditions do not improve with time and the wheat fails, most or all of the topdress N should still be available for a spring-planted crop.

Herbicide decisions on questionable wheat stands can be difficult. Thin, late wheat is not competitive with weeds, so weed control is important to minimize yield loss and harvest problems. On the other hand, using a long-residual herbicide might interfere with alternative crops planted on failed wheat acres. Use of residual herbicides should give the best weed control in thin wheat and might be the best choice where you are committed to harvesting the crop. If unsure about the crop, herbicide applications can be delayed until the status of the wheat crop is determined, or short-residual herbicides can be used. The use of MCPA (between 2-leaf and boot stage), dicamba (prior to jointing), the Affinity products, Express, or Harmony Extra (between 2-leaf and flag leaf emergence) will allow more recropping options. Also, 2,4-D can be applied between full-tiller and boot stage. But be especially careful not to apply 2,4-D too early on thin stands because it will stop tillering, and you want as much tillering as possible in this situation.

Additional information on herbicide options, crop rotation restrictions, and application guidelines can be found in K-State Report of Progress 994 "2011 Chemical Weed Control for Field Crops, Pastures, Rangeland, and Noncropland":

Be sure to read all product labels for growth stage application timing and rotational crop restrictions.