Early Season Evaluation of Wheat Stands and Nitrogen Considerations

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  • Tiller numbers in the Spring are related to grain yields later in the season
  • Wheat fields should be assessed for tiller numbers in the spring at green-up
  • Fields with low tiller numbers should receive the earliest application of Nitrogen
  • A tiller count of at least 90 tillers per square foot is typically required for high yield
wheat - photographed close-up of young green wheat shoots at the beginning of their growth
wheat – photographed close-up of young green wheat shoots at the beginning of their growth

A high yield wheat crop begins with adequate seeds/acre and a timely Fall planting date. Seeds germinate, plants grow, and tillers are produced. Late planted wheat, or harsh winters could result in suboptimal tillering and subsequently, may require a shift in management considerations. Therefore, assessing your fields for tillers in the spring is an essential component of high yield wheat production. This publication will review how to evaluate tiller numbers and management considerations.

Why assess tillers?
Assessing wheat populations needs to occur before the crop starts to green up in the Spring [Feekes growth stage (FGS) 2-3]. In general, 65-70 heads per square foot are required for most high yielding wheat. To achieve that head count, approximately 90 tillers per square foot are required. More tillers are required because not all tillers will develop a seed head. 

Assessing tiller number
How do you assess tiller number? There are a few methods, but the one described here is fairly straightforward. First, use Table 1 to determine the length of row needed to equal a square foot. Grab yourself a stick, dowel, or PVC pipe and mark off the length of interest. Go into the field and count the tillers in a row at a minimum of five sites well-spaced across the field. To make your tiller counts, First count the number of plants per square foot. Next, count the stems per plant that have at least three leaves. Multiply plant count x tillers/plant, and this will give you the tillers per acre at that location. Average your counts across the sites you assess for the field to arrive at your average tiller count. 

Nitrogen and tiller number
 Low tiller count stands should receive earliest nitrogen application to promote tiller development and growth. To help increase tillering, fields with counts below 70 should receive an application of 30 lbs nitrogen (N) per acre at FGS 2-3. The remaining N should be applied near the Feekes 5 growth stage. In general, a total spring N application rate of 1 lbs N per bushel yield is typical for high wheat yields, whereas no-till broadcast or streaming may require 1.2 lbs N per bushel yield. When determining your specific N requirements, ensure that you follow applicable state / regional nutrient management guidelines.

Table 1. Length of row needed for conversion of plants per square feet. From Penn State Univ Extension

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