As winter wheat fields emerge from snow cover, and there's enough thawing of the soil to allow pushing a shovel or spade several inches below the soil surface, farmers will be able to learn the condition of the crop at the start of the growing season.
Don't judge according to whether the foliage from the pre-winter growth is green or brown but concentrate instead on the health of the plant roots, said Extension Service agronomist and small grains specialist Shawn Conley in a recent advisory.
Dig a few plants, and take them to a warm place such as a milkhouse or the inside of a house, Conley advised. Healthy plants will shoot out new white roots.
Winter wheat plant density is another point to evaluate, Conley said. What's good is a minimum of 12 to 15 plants and at least 70 tillers per square foot, he noted.
If the number of tillers per square foot is less than 70, and the test plants that were dug have white rather than brown roots, the next step is to apply nitrogen as soon as field travel allows in order to induce more tillering, Conley said. If the number of tillers is sufficient, make the last nitrogen application just before the plants begin to joint.
Before deciding to abandon the winter wheat stand and plant another crop instead, realize the potential for the harvest of wheat straw and the high price that it commands today, Conley concluded.