Yes, Another Article About Freeze Symptoms in Winter Wheat

After a (short) second round of winter last week, there has been some concern regarding winter wheat. As a reminder, the magnitude of freeze damage depends on: 1) temperature, 2) duration ofFigure 1. Photo credit: JD Bethel temperature, and 3) wheat growth stage. During the cold snap last week, the majority of winter wheat in Ohio was at the Feekes 6 to 8 growth stage. In northern Ohio, temperatures were in the low 30s to upper 20s. In Southern Ohio, temperatures were mostly above 30°F with a dip to 26°F on April 23, recorded by the CFAES weather system in Pike County. Underneath the snow, temperatures were warmer (Figure 1 records the temperature under the snow on April 21). 

A few years ago, we conducted a freeze chamber experiment to examine the effect of low temperature on winter wheat at several growth stages (Table 1). Keep in mind, actual yield reductions in the field can be quite variable depending on the weather for the remainder of the growing season. At Feekes 6 growth stage, temperatures >20°F caused no damage. However, by Feekes 8 growth stage, temperatures of 25°F to 28°F caused a 10 to 25% reduction in wheat yield. These temperatures were from the crown of the wheat plant, not air temperature.

Table 1. Temperature (15-minute duration) at which wheat yield was reduced by 5%, 10%, 25%, and 50% at Feekes 6, 8, and 10.5.1 growth stages. (Data from Alt, Lindsey, Sulc, & Lindsey, 2020).

What to look for: After a freeze event, wait one to two weeks after active growing conditions resume to check for visual signs of freeze injury. Make sure to examine several areas of the field as landscape features influence the micro-climates within fields. Small differences in temperatures can cause large differences in damage and grain yield.

At Feekes 6 growth stage, damage from freezing will cause discoloration of the leaf tissue, with leaf tips or edges exhibiting symptoms first (Figure 2). However, discoloration does not necessarily indicate a reduction in grain yield. At Feekes 6 growth stage, damage can also be assessed by carefully cutting the wheat stem lengthwise to expose the developing spike at the first node. Damaged spikes will appear discolored and shriveled. A healthy, developing spike should be rigid and whitish-green (Figure 3).

Figure 2. At Feekes 6 growth stage, freeze damage causes yellowing of browning (necrosis) of the leaf and stem tissue. Wheat plants pictured (left to right) were exposed to temperatures of 3, 14, 21, 28, and 39°F corresponding to death of 100%, 80%, 50%, 25%, and 0% death of the plant tissue.

Figure 3. At Feekes 6 growth stage, freeze injury causes damage to forming wheat spike within the stem. Wheat spikes pictured (left to right) were exposed to 39, 28, 21, 14, and 3°F temperature treatments. At 3°F, the wheat spike appears discolored and deformed.

At Feekes 8 growth stage, damage from freeze may include yellowing or browning of the flag leaf. The flag leaf may appear twisted or in a spiral (Figure 4). As the plant continues to grow, the wheat spike may get stuck in the leaf sheath, causing a crooked appearance at heading (Figure 5). (Although, this phenology can also be associated with spikes that emerge quickly due to warm temperatures.)

Overall, I think freeze damage should be minimal from this most recent cold snap. At Feekes 6 growth stage, wheat is still fairly tolerant of cold temperatures. In the southern portion of the state, where wheat stage was more advanced, temperatures tended to be warmer. However, the best way to assess for potential damage is to scout your field after active growing conditions resume this week. For more information, see our new ‘Freeze Symptoms and Associated Yield Loss in Soft Red Winter Wheat’ FactSheet:

Figure 4. Twisting or spiral appearance of the flag leaf can be caused by low temperatures. Photo credit: Greg LaBarge.

Figure 5. At Feekes 8 growth stage, damage may include yellowing or browning of the flag leaf. The wheat head may get stuck in the leaf sheath causing a crooked appearance at heading.




Crop Observation and Recommendation Network

C.O.R.N. Newsletter is a summary of crop observations, related information, and appropriate recommendations for Ohio crop producers and industry. C.O.R.N. Newsletter is produced by the Ohio State University Extension Agronomy Team, state specialists at The Ohio State University and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). C.O.R.N. Newsletter questions are directed to Extension and OARDC state specialists and associates at Ohio State.