LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- The condition of the Arkansas winter wheat crop is pretty much a matter of when and where it was planted, according to Trey Reaper, area agronomist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

"Wheat that was planted on time, in October, looks really good, especially in the northeast part of the state which didn't have as much rain in the fall as the southern part," Reaper said. "Those plants had really tillered well by December."

He said that in most areas of the state, much of the crop was planted the last part of November and early December.

"In a regular year that isn't cold and wet, you'd see good emergence and growth in December. But we didn't see that this year. The crop is really struggling."

Reaper said he had thought that farmers might plant as much as 1.6 million acres of wheat in the fall, but rain and seed shortages held back the acreage. The Arkansas Agricultural Statistics Service estimates that 760,000 acres of wheat were planted in the fall, compared to 960,000 acres the year before and a 10-year average of 1.07 million acres.

The 2001 wheat crop was valued at $118 million, while the 10-year annual average was $148 million.

"We had a really wet fall," Reaper noted. "Many farmers said it was the wettest fall they had seen in many years."

The crop is dormant now because of cooler weather, but when it breaks dormancy farmers need to determine if they need to add phosphorus or nitrogen a little sooner than normal to stimulate some growth.

If they planted late — beyond the regular planting window for their region — they should consider adding additional fertilizer in a couple of weeks or so, Reaper said.

Reaper said phosphorus deficiency has been a problem the last couple of years for wheat planted behind rice.

"The rice crop takes a lot of phosphorus out of the soil and doesn't return it. If farmers didn't soil test and add phosphorus in the fall, more than likely they're going to have to put out a product to replace the loss.

"Farmers should also be aware that sulfur deficiency can be a problem on some of the sandier soils with all the rainfall we've had. It tends to leach out of the soil. It won't be available when the plant needs it over the next few months. It shouldn't be a problem on heavier soils."

Sulfur deficiency can easily be confused with nitrogen deficiency, Reaper said. Both cause yellowing of leaves.

"With nitrogen deficiency, you tend to see yellowing of the older leaves on the bottom of the plant. Sulfur deficiency causes a yellowing of the younger leaf tissue at the top of a plant. Nitrogen is mobile in the plant and tends to move from the oldest leaves to the younger leaves."

Sulfur deficiency can cause significant yield loss, so it's important to treat the problem. By adding a product such as ammonium sulfate, a farmer can add nitrogen and sulfur at the same time. "It's expensive, but it's worth it if you need it."

Reaper said ryegrass is still a problem in Arkansas, as it is every year. He said a number of farmers have sprayed Hoelon for the grass, and others may have to spray for it in the spring.

"With warmer weather, you should pay attention to emerging weeds," he advised. "Any of the small winter junk weeds won't be a problem once it warms up and you spray them."

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.