What to look for in fall wheat growth and development

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This month would be a good time to take a close look at your wheat, and see how well it has developed so far. You’ll want to look at not just the topgrowth, but at the root systems.

Figure 1. This plant has two tillers and one main stem. It is growing well. But look at the root system. It is not well enough developed to be grazed, and may be susceptible to nutrient deficiencies or desiccation damage over the winter if the crown roots do not get more developed. Photos by Jim Shroyer, K-State Research and Extension.

You can see a small tangle of roots coming out from the seed in the photo above. These roots are called seminal roots, which means they come out from the seed. These roots are used to take up water and nutrients throughout the whole growing season, but there aren’t very many of these roots so that can’t do all the work. In addition, there are several small protrusions coming out of the white area about an inch above the seed. Those are crown roots starting to grow. These roots take up most of the water and nutrients the plant will need, and they are very important for the plant to survive the winter. If a cow were grazing on this wheat, she would probably pull the plant out of the ground as she is eating the leaves. There aren’t many roots holding the plant in the soil. The amount of topgrowth on wheat doesn’t necessarily correspond to the amount of root growth.

The photos below illustrate various degrees of what you’d like to see when you examine your wheat this fall.

Figure 2. In this photo, some of the crown roots are over an inch long. If the weather is mild for a couple more weeks, the roots should grow even more, which would be desirable.

Figure 3. This is what you’re looking for and hoping to see as the wheat crop heads into winter. The crown roots are fully developed and able to provide water and nutrients to the plant. With all these roots the plant should be well anchored so that if cattle were grazing the wheat they couldn’t pull the plants out of the ground.

Jim Shroyer, Crop Production Specialist