Evaluating wheat stands and spring management

Scout wheat fields now to make proper management decisions.

Wheat roots
Photo by Dennis Pennington, MSU

The wheat crop has greened up across Michigan and is now actively growing. This has put some farmers at ease because late planted wheat is finally tillering and beginning to reach normal yield potential. For others, dead spots and poor stands from water ponding, icing and poor over winter survival are cause for concern. The USDA Crop Condition Report for April 29, 2019, had 23% in the poor and very poor categories, 33% in fair and only 44% good to excellent--far behind 2018 (Fig. 1).

Drones to collect aerial images can really help you quantify how much damage there is in a field. If you can find someone to capture a few images, it will help you to determine what percentage of the field is affected as well as where to walk to in the field to conduct stand counts.

At this stage in development, wheat is tillering (Feekes 3). Some early planted wheat has leaf sheaths becoming more erect (Feekes 4-5). Once Feekes 5 is reached, the growing point in the plant has differentiated into the seed head and the number of spikelets has been determined. There may be only one more tiller developed before Feekes 6 (first joint visible at soil surface). Most tillers produced after this stage make very little contributions to yield. So to determine yield potential, at this stage we want to count viable tillers that we think will produce a harvestable head that will contribute to yield.

USDA-NASS MI Crop Weather Bulletin
Figure 1. USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service Michigan Crop Weather Bulletin MI-CW1719.

Scouting procedure

You cannot scout fields from your vehicle. Get out and walk around each field and conduct a set of stand counts that represents the entire field. When conducting stand counts:

  • Measure 3-feet rows.
  • Count and record the number of tillers.
  • Count in three to five locations per field.
  • Calculate the average number of tillers per foot.

Count viable tillers in 3-feet rows. Wheat is too variable if you only count 1 foot. Use a yard stick and lay it down next to a row and begin counting. Try to count in uniform areas--avoid the "good" and "bad" spots. You want to get a good average in order to make proper management decisions. Count 3-feet rows in three to five locations in each field and use the average to determine the tiller count per 1 foot of row. Reference Table 1 for an estimation of yield potential based on tiller counts.

Table 1. Plant stand counts for four row spacings and their relation to percent of yield potential.

Plants per foot

Percent of yield potential

6-inch rows

7-inch rows

7.5-inch rows

10-inch rows


























Adapted from Table 3-4 of the University of Kentucky Extension Bulletin ID-125, "A Comprehensive Guide to Wheat Production in Kentucky."

Wheat in rows
Photo by Dennis Pennington, MSU

Scout for weeds

Late planted wheat with little or no tillering may be subject to increased weed pressure. The lack of early canopy cover may allow winter annuals to germinate and get a foothold where timely planted wheat may be able to overcome and outcompete with these weeds. When conducting stand counts, make note of weed pressures and determine a timely weed control plan. For more information on weed control in wheat, visit MSU Extension's Wheat Weed Control website.

Protect your wheat from disease

For fields that are kept in production, make sure you follow normal disease management practices.  When yields and prices are low, farmers want to make cuts in order to make a profit but cutting a fungicide application is not one of the cuts to make.  Fungicides protect yield potential.  Make application decisions based on disease resistance of the varieties you planted and keep track of emerging diseases.  You can sign up for the MSU Wheat Program’s Wheat Wisdom for regular updates or follow Dennis Pennington on Twitter @Pennin34.

For questions about evaluating your wheat stands, please contact Dennis Pennington, MSU wheat systems specialist, at pennin34@msu.edu or 269-832-0497. Also, visit the MSU Extension Wheat website.

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