Winter wheat harvest has begun in central Kentucky and the preliminary results can be summed up with one word: disappointing.

Two separate late spring freeze events in March and April left farmers, agronomists and extension personnel scratching their heads on how the wheat would react. Once wheat enters the “boot” stage, it becomes extremely susceptible to freeze damage. Once the head emerges from the stem, it becomes even more at risk to freezing temperatures.

The two freeze events in central Kentucky just so happened to hit when the wheat crop was entering these two stages. We knew there would be damage. The question was how much? Early on it seemed we may have dodged a bullet.

Typically, freeze damage will show in wheat a week to 10 days after an event. When scouting fields, we really weren’t seeing a huge amount of damage a week to two weeks after the events. Later on though, it was obvious that the damage was going to be greater than originally thought.

With wheat harvest well under way, it’s apparent many fields are showing as high as a 50 to 75 percent yield loss. While early harvested wheat has shown promising test weights, the grain quality looks like it could have suffered as well. Last week, grain moisture seemed to be coming down quite a bit, but the moisture content of the straw has remained high, likely becuase of physiological damage to the plant from the May freeze.

This green, damp straw has made harvest difficult as it is very hard to run through the combine. Combines are having to run slower, and farmers who would typically bale their straw directly behind the combine are forced to wait for it to dry after wheat harvest, which has been extremely difficult with the recent wet weather. The wet mat of straw also makes it more difficult to plant through when planting double crop soybeans.

With wet weather forecast for a large portion of this week, the risk of the dry mature grain sprouting in the head during the warm wet weather goes up. This can hurt yield, quality and test weight.

On a positive note, it does appear later planted wheat is faring a little better, as it likely was not quite as mature when the May freeze occurred. Different varieties also seem to have fared better than others, causing huge discrepancies in yield from field to field.

While the 2020 wheat crop was set up to be one of the best in this part of Kentucky in a long time, it did, in the end, turn out to be a bust for most. All we can do at this point is hope for a better crop next year.

For more information on growing winter wheat, contact the Hardin County Extension Service at 270-765-4121.

Matt Adams is a Hardin County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.