Causes of white heads in wheat

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White heads may appear in some wheat fields around the state this year. Sometimes the white heads are just single tillers scattered throughout part or all of a field. And sometimes the white heads occur in small to large patches. There are many causes of white heads. Here are some of the most common causes and their diagnosis.

Premature dying (drowning, hot dry winds, etc.). As wheat begins to mature, plants in some areas of the field may have an off-white color similar to take-all. This is premature dying, which could be due to drowning, hot dry winds, or some other stress. The pattern of off-colored heads will often follow soil types or topography. The grain will be shriveled and have low test weight.

Freeze injury to stem or crown. Depending on the stage of growth at the time of a late spring freeze, parts or all of the heads may die and turn white. In years when the freeze occurs about the boot stage or a little earlier, there can be injury to the lower stem, which then cuts off water and nutrients to the developing head. In years when the wheat is in the early heading stage at the time of the freeze, the freeze can damage the heads directly. Often, wheat on north-facing slopes, on ridge tops, or in low-lying areas will be most affected by freeze injury. But freeze injury can also be so severe that it occurs throughout the fields, in no particular pattern. Crown rot is another potential problem that can be traced back to freeze injury. When the crown is damaged by cold temperatures or a freeze, part or all of the tillers can die. If the tiller from a damaged crown forms a head, this head will almost always be white. The crown will have internal browning, and stands will usually be thinner than normal.

Hail. Hail can occasionally damage just a portion of a head, and cause that damaged portion to turn white.

Dryland root rot (also known as dryland foot rot). This disease, caused by the Fusarium fungus, causes white heads and often turns the base of the plants pinkish. As with take-all, dryland root rot causes all the tillers on an infected plant to have white heads. This disease is usually most common under drought stress conditions, and is often mistaken for either drought stress or take-all.

Head scab. When there are periods of rainy weather or sprinkler irrigation applications made while the wheat is flowering, some heads may become infected with Fusarium head blight and turn white. The heads of some red-chaffed varieties turn a darker red when infected with scab, but the heads of most varieties turn white. Often, only the upper half of the head is white. Head scab is most common where wheat is grown after corn, or after a wheat crop that had head scab the previous year.

Take-all. This disease often causes patches of white heads scattered throughout the field. It occurs most frequently in continuous wheat, and where there is a moderate to high level of surface residue. To diagnose take-all, pull up a plant and scrape back the leaf sheaths at the base of a tiller. If the base of the tiller is shiny and either black or dark brown, it is take-all. All tillers on a plant infected with take-all will have white heads. Plants will pull up easily.

Sharp eyespot. This disease is common in Kansas, but rarely causes significant yield loss. Sharp eyespot causes lesions with light tan centers and dark brown margins on the lower stems. The ends of the lesions are typically pointed. If the stems are girdled by the fungus, the tiller may be stunted with a white head. Each tiller on a plant may be affected differently.

Wheat stem maggot. Wheat stem maggot damage is common every year in Kansas, but rarely results in significant yield loss. It usually causes a single white head on a tiller, scattered more or less randomly through part or all of a field. If you can grab the head and pull the stem up easily just above the uppermost node, the tiller has probably been infested with wheat stem maggot.


Jim Shroyer, Crop Production Specialist Emeritus