How cold is too cold (for winter wheat)?

Overnight temperatures on April 15 and April 16, 2020 dropped into the low to mid 20s across a large portion of Ohio (Figure 1), and unofficial reports show a few locations briefly dropped into the upper teens! These temperatures were generally 12-20°F below average (1981-2010). A closer investigation at a few of the colder sites reveal temperatures remained below 32°F for 9-11 hours, below 28°F (hard freeze) for 7-9 hours, and below 22°F for 3-5 hours.

Injury to winter wheat depends primarily on three factors: 1) growth stage, 2) how cold, and 3) duration of cold temperature. Differences in freeze injury among cultivars can usually be attributed to slight differences in growth stage.

Although temperatures were low and there may be some yellowing/browning of leaves, the impact on wheat grain yield is likely to be minimal. In our research, at Feekes 6 growth stage, reductions in wheat grain yield began when temperatures fell to less than 20°F for a 15-minute duration. A 50% reduction in grain yield occurred at 12°F for a 15-minute duration.

Prior to Feekes 6 growth stage, the growing point of wheat is below the soil surface, protected from cold temperatures. However, at Feekes 6 growth stage, the first node appears and pushes the growing point (developing spike) up through the plant stem, and this developing spike can be damaged by low temperatures.

Damaged spikes can be observed by carefully cutting the wheat stem lengthwise to expose the developing spike at the first node. Damaged spikes will appear discolored and shriveled, which occurred at the 3°F temperature treatment (Figure 2).  

At Feekes 6 growth stage, damage from low temperatures will cause yellow or browning (necrosis) of the leaf tissue, most likely leaf tips or edges exhibiting symptoms first (Figure 3). Death of leaf tissues and stems may result in the formation of tertiary (regenerative) tillers from surviving plant crowns (Figure 4). These tertiary tillers may produce seed, but often time do not fully mature, resulting in small, lightweight kernels. Overall, grain yield is reduced in these situations as primary and secondary tillers account for the majority of grain yield.

 

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.