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wheat in drought
Wheat planted on Oklahoma State University’s campus begins to show signs of drought stress, but OSU Extension cropping systems specialist Josh Lofton said February rains could get the crop back on track. (Photo by Todd Johnson, OSU Agricultural Communications Services)

Drought concerns loom with spring on the horizon

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Media Contact: Gail Ellis | Communications Specialist, Copywriter | 620-515-2498 |

The state’s drought status continues to intensify, and rainfall within the next few weeks is crucial for a profitable 2022 wheat crop, especially in the northwestern part of the state.

“Much of the wheat between Stillwater and Woodward should have a decent profile of moisture stored from rainfall since last harvest, but the near surface moisture seems to be very low, and the roots may have not yet tapped into the deeper moisture,” said Jason Warren, a soil and water conservation specialist for Oklahoma State University Extension.

It’s a similar scenario for wheat that was planted after summer crops. Warren said a lot of it is grown under no-till management to help store rainfall received after the harvest of summer crops, but a dry period from July through September 2021 forced summer crops to fully deplete the soil’s moisture profile. The wheat grown after summer crops is dependent on rain this spring.

“All of our wheat production systems in western Oklahoma need a good drink and will require average or above-average spring rainfall to be successful,” Warren said.

In the Oklahoma Panhandle where cattle heavily graze wheat pastures in the winter, sub-optimal moisture will also affect crop rotation decisions later in the year.

“Extension educators are talking to their producers about whether this is the year we fallow out a lot of our summer crop ground or switch to forage,” said Josh Lofton, OSU Extension cropping systems specialist. “It’s one of those situations in the western side of the state where I don’t think we need to sell out to all one system but have a mix and match of forages and more drought-hardy crops like cotton and sorghum. We need to have alternative options for whatever Mother Nature gives us in the next few weeks.”

For producers who irrigate their wheat, Saleh Taghvaeian, OSU Extension water resources specialist, said continued drought will result in an earlier irrigation season. He said a plant’s ability to adapt to dry conditions is based on the amount of water the plant received during germination.

“It’s a very delicate balance, and you have to be careful about how much water is applied early in the growing season,” he said. “Filling the root zone entirely will confuse the crop. It will go into a lazy mode that doesn’t allocate resources to develop roots.”

When a hot and dry season arrives, groundwater and irrigation capacity declines. Water isn’t available to meet irrigation demand, and the plant’s roots aren’t strong enough to reach for deeper layers of moisture in the ground.

“In drought, the crop may look shorter and lack that lush green color, but below ground, if its root system is deep and extensive, it can extract more moisture from the root zone,” Taghvaeian said.

While producers wait for rain on their wheat fields, uncertainty looms around how much seed to purchase and what input costs to budget for additional crops. The Oklahoma Mesonet Drought Monitor reports a majority of the state in at least moderate drought, but Lofton said February rains could be a game changer.

“Just because we’re dry now doesn’t mean all is lost,” he said. “If it starts raining in early March and we get good recharge, our summer crops could be just fine.”

In addition to crop conditions, OSU Extension beef cattle specialist Derrell Peel discusses how the current drought is affecting cattle markets.

Learn more about OSU drought resources.

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