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The Importance of Tillers in Managing Your Wheat Crop

How to manage the tillering stage - and why you should.

For a profitable wheat crop, it's essential to understand tillering and the best ways to manage this growth stage. Knowing what tillers are, how to scout for them and what to do when tiller counts are low can make all the difference in achieving maximum wheat yields.

What is the tillering stage?

The tillering stage begins with the emergence of lateral shoots (tillers) at the base of the main stem of the plant. The tillering stage usually begins when a plant has three or more fully developed leaves—the height of the plant does not matter, only the number of leaves. Each tiller has the potential to produce a grain head, which is why it is so important to have as many as possible.

Tillers form primarily in the fall or early winter. Tiller growth then either slows or stops during the coldest winter months and starts again briefly when the weather warms again. (During the spring, there is a short period of vegetative growth before small grains switch from producing tillers to starting reproductive growth.)

How and when should you scout for tillers?

Southern States Agronomist Eddie McGriff advises farmers to continuously monitor the crop's tillers after planting. "In the winter, scouting tillers is necessary before you can apply herbicides, as most labels require that tillers have between 2 to 3 leaves before use," notes McGriff. In addition, farmers should keep an eye on their fields to make sure that weeds are still small enough to handle with herbicides.

In late January or early February, experts recommend a tiller count. There should be between 100 to 105 tillers per square foot, according to Southern States Senior Agronomist Charles Hubbard. This count is the general standard in most regions for soft red winter wheat, Hubbard adds.

What if the tiller count is low?

In late winter, if you perform a tiller count and it is less than 100 tillers per square foot, it's time to take action. According to Hubbard, if tiller counts are low at this time, farmers should apply additional nitrogen early to promote tiller growth. A split nitrogen application can help to boost the tiller count during this brief period before tiller growth ceases.

To determine how much nitrogen to apply - and when to apply it - refer to your state's university small grain guide. These guides have detailed information on exactly how much nitrogen should be added, factoring in current tiller counts and regional differences that affect timing.

What do tillers mean for your final crop yield?

Research has shown that high tiller counts generally lead to high yields. "It is hard to predict what your final yield will be solely based on your tiller count because there are so many outside factors that could affect your crop," says McGriff. "But typically, the more tillers you have, the higher your yield potential will be."

In addition, it's important to note that earlier tillering is better: Tillers that emerge in the fall and winter generally produce larger grains and result in a higher yield as well than those that emerge in spring.

For more information about tillers, please consult your local Southern States Agronomy Expert or local Extension office.

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