How Snow Helps Both Winter and Spring Wheat


Though low moisture persists throughout most of the wheat growing areas in the Plains, some of the late winter snows came just in time.

Wheat crops in the U.S. are planted at two different times of the year, with winter wheat planted in the fall and spring wheat planted in the spring. Winter wheat germinates and sets down roots in the fall, then goes dormant until weather warms enough to allow it to resume growing.

Snow serves two purposes for winter wheat. First, it acts like insulation for the seedlings, protecting them from changes in temperature over the winter, and second when the snow melts, it recharges the top soil.

Drew Lerner, senior meteorologist at World Weather Inc., said the snow storms in February in the parts of the Texas/Oklahoma Panhandle and southwest Kansas melted quickly and may have warmed up the soils enough to break up any frost that might have been there.

A lack of snow leaves seedlings at risk of various in temperature. Freeze/thaw cycles can cause soil heaving, which damages the tiny roots and can hurt early crop development.

In areas where wheat is planted in the spring, snow cover again is needed to recharge top soil, but this time, it’s to help during seeding time, when moisture is needed to allow seeds to sprout. “If there’s a lack of snow cover like it was last year in the Northern Plains, that can be a problem,” says Dale Mohler, expert senior meteorologist at Accuweather.

Last year’s dry weather hampered germination of the spring wheat crop.

“This year things were a little more normal. They want the snow so they don’t have to depend on the spring rain,” Mohler says.

It takes about 12 inches of snow to equal an inch of rain. The moisture crops receive from snowfall is important, but to a plant, snowmelt and rainfall are the same, Mohler says. “Rain versus snow, it doesn’t make a difference, but you want snow in the winter.”

Debbie Carlson has focused on commodities for much of her writing career. She spent more than a decade at Dow Jones covering the Chicago-based futures exchanges. As a Dow Jones editor, she worked closely with The Wall Street Journal and Barron's in planning commodities coverage.

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