April was warm in Garden City. The southwestern Kansas town had 13 days above 70 degrees during the month, and eight of those were warmer than 80. It was sunny nearly the entire month, save for a few days of rain here and there.
And then the weekend happened. The temperature dropped into the 30s, and it started to snow. By the time Monday rolled around, up to 20 inches of snow had fallen in the region.
This also happens to be where a lot of the state’s wheat farms are located. Kansas is one of the country’s largest wheat producers (if not the largest). At this stage in the game, wheat plants are out of dormancy and beginning to elongate. The further along they are in the growing process, the more damage they’re going to sustain in cold, wintry weather.
Pretty much any kind of extreme weather can do a number on agriculture. In the Plains, spring hail storms can wreak havoc on young crops, though the damage is isolated. Extreme heat and the drought that comes along with it are obvious threats. Frost and freeze are the most threatening hazards — even more so than snow, which often acts to insulate the plants from cold temperatures.
But the wheat had grown too tall by the time the spring snowstorm hit, which led to two types of damage — freezing temperatures and the weight of the snow itself — according to agriculture scientists at Kansas State University:
The snowfall events observed during the April 29 – May 1 period were heavy due to a high moisture content, and in many cases had the wheat lying flat on the ground…. In some cases, the entire plants might have simply lodged without actually breaking the stems, case in which the crop might stand back up again in the near future after the snow melts. In other cases, however — and what seem to be the majority of the cases in the region — the sheer weight exerted on top of the wheat crop might have caused the stems [to] break in many fields … causing another source of yield loss in addition to the cold temperatures.
While yield loss from this snowfall event might occur in most of the fields affected, the magnitude of the yield loss at this point is uncertain. At least one week to 10 days will be needed to properly assess the situation, after the snow melts away. The yield loss will depend on stage of crop development, severity of stem breaking, and number of hours of below-freezing temperatures observed.
Farmers won’t know how the crops fared until the snow melts and they can assess the fields. Like for other plants, the extent of the damage will depend on how far along the crops were. Even within the same field, some plants will be a total loss while others will make it because they weren’t developed enough.
Southwestern Kansas was hardest hit by the weekend storm, in which freezing temperatures combined with heavy snow. Other areas stand a better chance:
Possibly, fields in the northwest corner of the state where the crop was mostly at boot stage might still produce a decent crop, depending on the severity of stem breakage. In this situation, the majority of the yield loss should come from stem breaking due to the heavy snow, but the long period of time at below-freezing temperatures might also contribute to any possible yield loss. These speculations are based on our understanding of wheat response to different stresses, and the actual damage will need to be assessed on a field-by-field situation after the snow melts away.