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Blanket of snow good for wheat

View from Rural Route 8

By Jim Suber

We who care about such things wanted Mama Nature to unfurl a comforting and protective winter “blankee” of snow over our fields and pastures and wish us “Sweet Dreams” during a long deep sleep.

There is nothing like a good snow cover, particularly for a struggling wheat crop, so often talked about but so rarely seen for very long or over the entire state or region.

This last flirtation with a warm blanket episode was in part a miss, just as sometimes our mothers’ blanket tosses would miss their marks on the way down and wind up half on the floor.

Our farmers and landowners needed a good soaking rain or a heavy, non-blowing insulating snow that was wet with moisture.

At least an inch of moisture within a 10-inch cover of snow would have been just fine.

While much of the state continued to suffer sharp deficits in rainfalls, many Kansas wheat farmers in 2012 enjoyed some quite timely rains sufficient to log amazing yields, resulting in a statewide production of 382 million bushels, a 38 percent increase over the stricken crop a year earlier.

Additionally, the wheat ripened in record time, the earliest since recordings began in the 19th century. This trip we are seriously dry all over, and timely snows would be a huge help right now.

Jim Shroyer, the longtime great friend of wheat growers and Kansas agriculture from his position as Kansas State University research and extension crop specialist – wheat is one of his main areas of expertise—reviewed for the record four major benefits snow cover can bring to wheat (and I add row crop fields, windbreaks and pastures).

They are moisture, root development, moderated soil temperatures and soil protection.

Of the first, most moisture from snow usually winds up in the soil beneath. It tends to stay longer because it’s cool and doesn’t evaporate as fast as a hot shower would.

Amazingly, while the top growth might be dormant above the soil, roots will continue to develop with the moisture under the surface. That’s a good thing.

While the snow is on top and deep enough to matter, it will keep the soil from blowing away. Of course it helps if the snow is heavy enough to stay put. Sometimes it will crust over, making it more difficult for the wind to move it off the plants and topsoil.

Finally, a snow will tend to block extremely cold air from entering the soil, which protects the plant’s parts from being killed by freezing.

The moisture from the snow also helps to moderate the temperature, because wet soil won’t get as cold as fast as dry soil. That is why everyone in a drought wants at least enough rain in late fall to seal the ground to help shut out the very cold air.

Shroyer suggests that one of the best ways to help a field gain snow cover is to have standing residue on the field. The residue can help catch and keep snow when it’s windy, which here is a given. The Christmas tune does say: “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” 

You can contact Jim Suber at thesube.com.









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