What Happened to the Winter Wheat?

Some growers will be faced with a challenge, whether to fertilize and hope the stand pulls through, or whether to terminate it and plant something else. When it comes to answering this question, it all depends on the stand we see in the field this spring.

In the fall, plants will start to put on tillers, usually giving a good indication of final wheat production. However, spring is also another opportunity to put on tillers. Wheat plants are able to put on tillers in the spring with a little boost from spring applied nitrogen. In order to determine what to do with your wheat come spring time, you have to first evaluate the stand.

Wheat plants break dormancy when temperatures get to be above 39 degrees, and stands should be evaluated 10-14 days after warm weather begins. This will allow for the wheat to green up and form more uniform stands to better allow you to see what survived. Especially with numerous fields not emerging before winter set in this year, give the stand time to respond to the warm weather before going out to assess your fields.

Stand evaluations are aimed for fields that have emerged, but what do we do if our fields still haven’t emerged after a couple weeks of warm weather? Emergence and germination in the fall is crucial for determining if the plant will be able to produce a head in the spring. However, it is not the end of the world if the plant doesn’t emerge. Vernalization; a required of cold period before flowering can occur and differs across varieties, will still occur regardless of emergence. This means that seeds still have a fighting chance even if didn’t emerge in the fall. Yields may be slightly less and maturity may be delayed up to 10 days if the wheat did not emerge prior to the onset of winter.

When you are looking to evaluate stand counts, take a ruler or take measure and mark out 3 feet, then count the number of plants in that length, multiply by 4 and then divide by your row with in inches. This will give you the number of plants per square foot. You will want to do this in several random locations throughout the field to get a representative stand count.

Stand counts less than about 15 plants per square foot is generally considered the minimum threshold for a decent stand and adequate yield. Anything less than that will not be economically feasible and other options such as termination or planting of another crop should be considered. To get the maximum yield, ideal stands are 20-30 plants per square foot.

Thin stands have the ability to put on tillers in the spring to compensate for the lack of plants, but when stands are below the threshold, tillers will not make up the yield lost. Tillers are secondary branches off the main stem and are important to know for nitrogen application timing. You should also count tillers while checking plant stands by counting the number of tillers, including the main stem, in the 3-foot row. Tiller counts 60-70 are considered low and it may be beneficial to get nitrogen applied by green-up to get tiller counts up. Anything less than 60 tillers is considered not economically practical and should be considered for termination or planting of another crop. If you have tiller counts around 70-90 per square foot, it is not a crucial that you get nitrogen to the plants as soon as possible. Stands with higher tiller counts can wait longer to receive fertilization; up until stem elongation.

When in the field looking at plants, you should also be digging them up and checking the health of the plant roots and crowns. Healthy roots and crowns will be white/light green with minimal to no dark or soft spots. If you find that a large number of roots and crowns seem to appear unhealthy, it may be warranted to terminate the crop. This goes for fields that did not emerge in the fall as well. It is important to dig plants/seeds in the spring to look at overall health. This will give you a better look at the field potential and be able to assess if there is any hope for the stand. Just like emerged stands, large numbers of unhealthy plants or weakened root systems or seeds may call for termination of the stand.

This spring it is going to be a tough call for many wheat farmers when it comes to deciding what to do with their fields. Just because a field has a bare spot does not mean that the whole thing needs to be terminated. You should weigh the cost of terminating fields, seed cost, equipment and labor costs, as well as fertilizer costs if you were to keep a stand to determine what option fits your farm the best. Depending on what the spring weather has in store for us, spring wheat is still an option for those who still want a wheat crop. It won’t be an easy decision on wheat this year but it’s best to get in the field to evaluate before any decisions are made.