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Wheat School: Counting tillers helps determine N strategy

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April 7, 2021

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The winter wheat stand has greened up, come out of winter, and the growing degree days are accumulating, which has many thinking about a nitrogen application.

“People are getting out, they’re looking at the number of plants per row, they’re checking for tillers, do they need to put their nitrogen on, can they wait,” says Joanna Follings, cereals specialist for Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

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Follings and RealAgriculture’s resident agronomist Peter “Wheat Pete” Johnson take us through staging, counting tillers, and timing that nitrogen application in this Wheat School episode.

The first thing to do, says Johnson, is to count the number of plants per square foot — or 19.2 inches of a row — then, start counting tillers, which can be tricky.

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“If we have a late-planted wheat stand, that only has one stem with three leaves on it, it’s got zero tillers,” says Johnson. The amount of growing degree days will shorten the length of time that plant takes to create another stem or tiller and that should be factored in when planning your next scout. See the video below for more on counting tillers:

The goal is to get 60 heads per square foot, but as Follings explains, having too many tillers is unsustainable; so in a field like that, a nitrogen application isn’t warranted. An early nitrogen application on big wheat will do more harm than good, warns Johnson.

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In fields where there’s only one main stem, with one or two tillers, those are the fields that should be targeted with an early shot of nitrogen, says Follings. “Fifty to sixty per cent of your total nitrogen up front — we want to promote that tillering, because this is our only time to do that. Once we get beyond growth stage 30, stem elongation, no more tillers, at that point we don’t even want them anymore.”

Another issue that Johnson mentions is bunching of seeds at planting, which creates smaller, underdeveloped plants because of too much competition. “Controlled spilling” during seeding can create a competition issue, which compounds into a tiller issue, says the duo.

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