How Wheat Survives the Winter


Growing wheat during the winter can be a challenge, especially if it’s your first time growing wheat during the cold season. However, once you learn about the steps involved and the processes that you need to follow, you can not only improve their survival rate but also ensure you reap a bountiful harvest. The first thing to do is search for “topsoil near me” and get a good batch of topsoil from a reputed vendor that includes plenty of nutrients.

The Factors

Here are a few factors that determine how wheat survives the winter:

  • Wheat type – The first thing that you should realize is that there are two types of wheat: spring wheat and winter wheat. Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall whereas winter wheat is planted during the fall and harvested in early summer.

The vegetative characteristics of the two kinds of wheat are similar in nature but only winter wheat can survive prolonged periods of extremely cold temperature. In fact, winter wheat needs to go through a period of near-freezing temperature to trigger their reproductive stage and produce seed.

The popular varieties of winter wheat include ‘Soft Red Winter’ that is low in gluten content and ‘Hard Red Winter’ that has a higher protein and gluten content and is the common ingredient in all-purpose flour and bread.

  • Cold acclimation or hardiness of the seeds – Winter wheat seedlings that have just emerged in the early fall are similar to spring seedlings. However, they need to go through a period of cold temperature and acclimatize to the cold temperature to ensure they survive the freezing temperatures of the winter. This is a physiological process known as ‘cold acclimation’ or ‘hardening’ in which certain genes produce a type of ‘antifreeze’ substance that coats the cell membranes.

In order to trigger this process, the temperatures need to gradually dip below and hit a threshold of 50 degrees Fahrenheit at the crown depth. That’s why the winter wheat seeds need to be planted during the fall when the daily temperature decreases gradually as winter approaches. As the temperature lowers further, the speed of acclimation gets quicker. Generally, it takes about 4 to 6 weeks for the crown to fully cold harden.

Along with the gradual exposure to cold temperatures, the photoperiod of the season also plays a crucial role in the process of cold hardening. For instance, the longer nights and shorter days also help to trigger the process.

The gradual exposure to the cold temperature as the seedling grows allows it to adapt slowly by lowering the moisture content of the growing point at the base of the shoot (crown). This results in a decrease in the accumulation of carbohydrates and slows down the growth phase.

  • Vernalization – When the winter wheat seedlings are planted during the fall, they begin the process of cold acclimation and start storing energy to survive the winter. During the first month, they develop the crown, the first few leaves, and the secondary root system.

Typically, in order to survive the winter, the seedlings need one or two tillers and a minimum of four to five leaves. Ideally, the seedlings should have three to five tillers before the winter arrives. The crop stubble allows it to catch snow that helps by providing moisture and also forms an insulating blanket that increases the chance of survival during the winter. And, to ensure a better survival rate you need to plant them about one inch below the firm soil surface.

Once the winter wheat cold-hardens, it needs to remain at a temperature of lower than 40 degrees Fahrenheit for a prolonged duration to trigger its reproductive stage. How much time it requires to trigger the reproductive stage and the range of temperatures that it needs to be subjected to depends on the wheat variety.

  • Condition of the roots – The winter wheat must develop a good root system, crown, and at least two or more tillers during the fall to ensure higher survivability. Otherwise, they can become susceptible to winterkill or desiccation.

This is generally of more concern in areas that remain dry for prolonged durations. The only way to inspect the development of the root system is to pull up and examine a few plants since the poor development of a root system is not readily apparent.

Poorly developed secondary roots can be a result of poor seed-to-soil contact, dry soil, insect damage, extremely low pH, and other such causes which depend on the seedbed conditions, snow cover, and moisture levels.

  • Soil temperature – Winter wheat will retain full cold hardiness as long as the crown remains below 32 degrees and provided every other factor is optimum. However, if the soil temperature is not stable and gets over 50 degrees Fahrenheit for an extended duration, it can start to unharden rapidly.

If the temperature dips below the threshold once again, it will begin to re-harden but never reach the maximum level of cold hardiness in unstable soil temperature. Similarly, the plants can get damaged if the temperature dips rapidly during the winter.

  • Damage due to disease or insects – Oftentimes, the winter wheat may die not due to winterkill but as a result of insect infestations. Even when the temperatures are perfect, infestations of Hessian fly, brown wheat mites, winter grain mites, aphid, army cutworms, and more can weaken the crops and make them susceptible to cold weather stress, and desiccation. It can also be affected by crown and root rot disease.

Thus, it is crucial to check the soil and crops for any signs of insect infestation or disease and use insecticide to treat the crops before the damage gets too severe.


Whatever you do, ensure that you plant the seeds into good-quality topsoil that is full of nutrients and free of harmful worms and disease-causing agents. You can purchase high-quality topsoil from a reputed offline store or search “topsoil near me” online to order a good batch right to your home. Happy farming!