God save the crown

Not a monarchist myself. So a Shakespearean quote like: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” doesn’t do much but set me off to scratching mine. But there is another sort of crown that I can get my head around.  This would be the crown of a plant.  And now that we stand in the midst of winter, the crowns of winter cereals are top of mind.


This is the crown I’m thinking about

On our early morning walk, the dog and I head to a field beyond the last house on the road. Yesterday as we entered the field one could feel the crunch of frozen plants under foot.  There being no snow cover at the moment this is a tough situation for these plants.  Will these plants survive until the spring thaw?  It will depend upon several factors.

Winter hardiness is a plant characteristic that pretty much describes itself. Surviving the winter is what it’s all about.  But like almost anything else in plant biology, the simplicity is deceiving.  Frost is one thing, freezing is another.  And temperature is only one factor in the mix.  The winter of 2014-2015 was particularly difficult and Robert Klein, a Nebraska Crop Specialist wrote up a pretty nice Extension piece describing what happened that winter and how several factors affect winter wheat’s ability to survive in the face of nature’s brutality. [available here]

Winter survival also can be affected by a number of factors besides variety tolerance to winterkills. This week we saw examples where the same variety would rate excellent in one field but poor or fair in other fields. Several factors contribute to winter injury or winter kill, including lack of rain, lack of snow and snow cover, fluctuating high-low temperatures, loose seed beds, crop residue, seeding date, hoe or disk drill, seeding depth, soil type and quality, fallow practices, terraces, field edges, field exposure or silt blown into a field due to high winds.  (In one case, wheat 100-120 feet in from the road was killed due to silt blown in during the October 18, 2012 wind storm.)

With the harsher winter conditions, the effects of practices such as seeding date and seedbed preparation are more evident. Early-seeded winter wheat used soil water last fall, leaving little moisture in the soil profile in some areas. Dry soil heats up and cools down six times faster than moist soil, increasing winter injury and winterkill.

Where Robert talks about heating up and cooling down faster (due to dryness) there are couple issues for the plant to deal with.  First is heaving, where frost heaving lifts the plant and then when it warms the soil settles back and leaves the seedling pushed up (frequently breaking roots off – ouch!).  More on heaving from the Missouri Botanical Garden here.  Secondly, frequent cycling between warm and cold can desiccate plant tissues which causes a drought type symptom.  Also ouch.

Plant breeding to develop varieties that better tolerate inclement winter conditions has been going on for ages.  Robert Klein’s coauthor for the UNL Extension piece mentioned above is Dr. Stephen Baenziger who is the UNL wheat and barley breeder.

Our winter cereal plants – at least the ones that survive the winter – green up in the spring and grow on toward maturity by making a head or spike that bears the grain. Perhaps this could be the head which Shakespeare refers to – “Uneasy lies the head that depends upon a winter hardy crown” …

In putting this post together I did a search for “wheat crown” in order to get an image to share.  Much to my surprise more than a dozen images of wheat being woven into a headdress popped up before the plant drawing used above.  More evidence that our society cares less for the nature of agriculture and more for concerns of personal adornment.  Reminds me of thoughts shared earlier on a rural vs. urban societal divide.




Ok, a wheat crown… Uneasy lies the head – I guess…

Sources of the images in this post:





  1. Mr. S. Puppet · · Reply

    Oh, Hamlet. My favorite. Put a wheat crown on a skull – then “to be or not to be”


  2. After our drought in 2016 I’m a bit concerned about what I’ll see in a few weeks. Any suggestions on mixed forage that will build in better resilience?


    1. Before we get to particulars I have to make the typical disclaimers, sidestepping announcements, and other falderal regaling all who happen upon these comments that as this is not a soybean solution… so you should take these remarks with a grain of salt.

      Lespedeza. There.

      Two references worth your time:



      The first is the good news and note ‘Korean’ – the second is the cautionary news, and note ‘Sericea’.

      Lespedeza is a legume, it can be eaten by sheep and cattle, it will fix N if it develops nodules – and it should if seed is inoculated with Rhizobia (this is still an organic treatment). Among the forage legumes it has a good reputation for drought tolerance. It should not cause bloat.

      I don’t know where to point you to for seed, but if you have any difficulty finding seed get back to me. I know some people who know some people.

      If you choose to try lespedeza (or any other course) I typically recommend not converting all potential acres in one go. Having a comparison helps in a few ways. 1) If things go horribly wrong for some reason – you still have the original system available (lespedeza should be a pretty low risk on this front). 2) Livestock may be slow to try something different – having the old reliable on hand can afford them a chance to slowly move onto a different feed ingredient, and 3) when this works wonders and saves your bacon, you have a comparison on hand to measure exactly how incredible a result you have on your hands.

      Not sure if its clear, but if your spring green up is a total disaster – you’ll want more than lespedeza… I’m guessing you should still have some grass survive and that a lespedeza interseeding is to thicken a potentially weak stand, add a legume and some diversity. If my guessing is wrong and you have to completely reestablish – then grasses will be needed, and I’m going to have to help you look for other help.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: