Effect of freezing temperatures on wheat in boot and early heading stages

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Overnight temperatures dropped below freezing and into the upper 20’s in parts of Kansas in the early morning of May 2. In low areas of the fields, temperatures will typically be lower than the officially recorded temperatures.

Here are the possibilities for freeze injury by the most common stages of growth in the areas of the latest freeze:

Jointing to pre-boot. Jointing wheat can usually tolerate temperatures in the mid to upper 20’s with no significant injury. The lowest official readings were all in that range or above on May 2. But, if temperatures in some low-lying areas fell into the low 20’s or even lower for several hours, the lower stems, leaves, or developing head may have sustained injury. If the tillers were in this stage or earlier at the time of the freeze and the tillers are green and growing actively now, then the heads should be fine. If the head had been killed, the tiller would not be green and actively growing. If the leaves coming out of the whorl are chlorotic, then the head on that tiller is dead.

Boot. In this stage, wheat can be injured if temperatures drop down into the mid to upper 20’s for several hours. Injury is more likely if this occurs repeatedly and if it is windy at night.

To detect injury, producers should wait several days then split open some stems and look at the developing head. If the head is green or light greenish in color and seems firm, it is most likely going to be fine. If the head is yellowish and mushy, that’s a sign of freeze injury.

Freeze injury at the boot stage causes a number of symptoms when the heads are enclosed in the sheaths of the flag leaves. Freezing may trap the spikes inside the boots so that they cannot emerge normally. When this happens, the spikes will remain in the boots, split out the sides of the boots, or emerge base-first from the boots.

Sometimes heads emerge normally from the boots after freezing, but remain yellow or even white instead of their usual green color. When this happens, all or part of the heads have been killed. Frequently, only the male parts (anthers) of the flowers die because they are more sensitive to low temperatures than the female parts. Since wheat is self-pollinated, sterility caused by freeze injury results in poor kernel set and low grain yield.

It’s possible for some of the spikelets to be alive and a healthy dark green while other spikelets on the same head are damaged. If a spikelet flowers normally and the kernels on that spikelet develop normally, then the head is at least partially viable and will produce grain (unless it freezes again, of course).

Awns beginning to appear. If the awns have begun to appear, there can be significant injury to the heads if temperatures reach about 30 degrees or lower for several hours. The heads may fully exert from the boot, but few, if any, of the spikelets may pollinate normally and fill grain. Damaged heads from a freeze at this stage of growth may seem green and firm at first glance, but the floral parts will be yellowish and mushy.

Flowering. It’s possible a few fields may be in the flowering stage where temperatures got below freezing on May 2. Wheat is particularly vulnerable to damage from freezing weather as the head starts to emerge through the flowering stage. Temperatures of 30 degrees or lower can damage anthers.

If the wheat was in the flowering stage at the time of the freeze, you can determine if the anthers are damaged by examining them with a magnifying lens. Healthy anthers will first be lime green, then yellow. If they are damaged by a freeze, they will begin twisting within 2 to 3 days. Shortly afterward, they will begin to turn whitish or brown. The stigma in the florets may or may not also be damaged by a freeze. If the anthers are damaged by freeze, the flowers may fail to develop a kernel.

Fortunately, wheat doesn’t flower all at the same time on the head. Flowering proceeds from florets near the center of wheat spikes to florets at the top and bottom of the spikes over a 3- to 5-day period. This small difference in flowering stage when freezing occurs can produce some odd-looking heads. The center or one or both ends of the spikes might be void of grain because those florets were at a sensitive stage when they were frozen. Grain might develop in other parts of the spikes, however, because flowering had not started or was already completed in those florets when the freeze occurred.

Healthy wheat anthers are trilobed, light green and turgid before pollen is shed. Each wheat floret contains three anthers. Healthy stigmas are white and have a feathery appearance. Photos from Spring Freeze Injury to Kansas Wheat, K-State Research and Extension publication C646.

Anthers become twisted and shriveled, yet they are still their normal color within 24 to 48 hours after a freeze. A hand lens is necessary to detect these symptoms.


If damaged, anthers become white after 3 to 5 days and eventually turn whitish-brown. The anthers will not shed pollen or extrude from the florets.

Damage may occur in different areas of the spike because flowering, which is the most sensitive stage to freeze, does not occur at the same time in all florets.

If you are unsure whether there has been freeze damage to the anthers, wait several days and determine whether kernels are developing normally. A week after flowering, kernels should be well-formed up and down the head under normal conditions.

In addition to this, be watching for any freeze damage to lower stems. If the damage is severe enough, the plants will eventually lodge.

More information

The comments above are general guidelines. Actual damage, if any, will not become apparent until temperatures have warmed back up for several days and growth has resumed.

For more information on freeze damage to wheat, see Spring Freeze Injury to Kansas Wheat, K-State Research and Extension publication C646, at: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/pubs/c646.pdf

Jim Shroyer, Crop Production Specialist