Arkansas wheat farmers are nervous over predicted cold weather this weekend. The cold could cause significant damage to the 830,000-acre crop, said Jason Kelley, wheat specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

“Everyone is a little nervous right now. My phone rang five or six times before 8:30,” he said Wednesday morning.

The 2007 winter wheat crop could be worth $187 million, estimates Bobby Coats, Arkansas Extension economist.

A late freeze may siphon off some of the profit farmers hoped to make on the wheat crop this year. Many farmers booked or contracted their wheat crop in the fall at planting to take advantage of excellent prices.

The crop has been expensive to produce because of high fertilizer and fuel prices.

“This has been one of our more expensive crops to produce. Many producers already had this wheat crop sold last fall,” Kelley said.

The big question this weekend, according to Kelley, is how cold it’s going to get. Wheat is sensitive to freezing weather in the spring as the crop approaches maturity. Some weekend predictions range from lows in the mid to upper 20s in northeast Arkansas and 31 degrees in central Arkansas.

The amount of damage will depend on several factors, including how cold it gets and for how long, what stage the wheat crop is in, topography and how warm the ground is, Kelley said.

“If we get down to 28 degrees in the boot stage, we potentially could have quite a bit of damage,” he said. “If it’s in early heading, 30 degrees for a few hours can cause damage. I think the amount of damage depends on the temperature, how long it’s cold and the growth stage the crop is in.”

Most of the state’s crop ranges from a little before boot stage to fully headed.

Boot stage refers to when the last leaf is out and the head is ready to emerge from the leaf sheath. The head contains the developing grain.

Wheat tolerates cold weather well over the winter, but if the cold hits the wheat at the right stage of development in the spring, it can cause “blank heads” in which no grain forms.

“Farmers potentially could lose a significant part of their crop. One degree difference could make a big difference in the amount of damage,” Kelley noted.

He said it will frost at 36 degrees, but that probably wouldn’t cause too much of a problem. Recent temperatures have been in the 80s and the soil is fairly warm, he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have some of that heat rising up through the wheat canopy, which could help farmers.”

Wheat planted on a hill will probably fare better than wheat in low areas where cold temperatures settle, according to Kelley.

Don Plunkett, Jefferson County Extension staff chair, said he has talked to some farmers, lenders and equipment sales people, “and the common thought now is that it will be one of the most expensive wheat crops ever. If they make a good yield, they’ll still make better money than they’ve made in recent years, even though input costs are up significantly.”

However, farmers worry about having to shell out extra money for fungicide if stripe rust disease becomes a problem, in addition to freeze damage.

e-mail: ljames@uaex.edu