Managing Winter Wheat Diseases in Wisconsin During the 2021 Field Season

Damon L. Smith, Extension Field Crops Pathologist, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Up until this week diseases of winter wheat have been basically non-existent. Dry weather leading to a moderate drought in much of the state has meant that the environment has not been favorable for most wheat pathogens of concern for us in the upper Midwest. There is an exception to that rule, and we have observed one disease, and gotten reports of that disease this week. That disease is powdery mildew and does tend to follow a few different “rules” when it comes to fungal diseases. Let’s discuss this disease further and then dig in a bit on what you should do for disease management as we move through the rest of the 2021 winter wheat season.

So, what’s up with powdery mildew?

Figure 1. Signs and symptoms associated with powdery mildew on a wheat leaf.

Powdery mildew of winter wheat is caused by the fungus Blumeria graminis f. sp. tritici. The most notable sign of powdery mildew is the white, fluffy fungal growth that occurs on the surface of leaves (Fig. 1). Yellow spots may be present on the underside of the leaf. The white “tufts” might also have very small black pepper-like structures in them. Generally, the disease will start in the lower canopy, and if weather is favorable, will move up the canopy eventually reaching the flag leaf and even infecting heads on susceptible varieties.

The reason that powdery mildew has been an issue this year, despite the dry weather, is that it happens to like cool conditions combined with dew events. Warm days and cool nights often lead to dew and extended periods of leaf wetness (think semi-arid climates). This combined with temperatures less than 80 F, means the fungus can thrive on susceptible varieties. Excessive rain events actually deter this particular fungus, as heavy rain events can wash spores from the leaf. So, it isn’t surprising that we are seeing powdery mildew right now given the weather we have had.

Should you spray fungicide for powdery mildew?

Most of the time I would say no. Often in Wisconsin, the weather begins to turn much warmer as we approach heading and the fungus will stop spreading and remain a novelty in the lower canopy. Remember, once daytime temperatures get above 80 F, the fungus will stop or slow in progression. The key in making the fungicide spray decision is to know the susceptibility of the variety you planted and watch the weather. If the weather remains conducive (temps below 80 F, no rain, but dew) and the variety is ranked susceptible, then spraying around flag leaf emergence might be warranted. You can consult the Fungicide Efficacy for Control of Wheat Diseases table for products rated with the best efficacy for powdery mildew. Note that most of the higher rated products are triazole compounds, or compounds with a triazole in their mix. No need to be fancy here, find something that fits your budget and has good efficacy. There should be ample choices.

I don’t care about powdery mildew, but what disease should I keep an eye on next?

The last few seasons, two diseases have been our primary focus on winter wheat in Wisconsin. These diseases are stripe rust and Fusarium head blight (scab or FHB). In 2019 and 2020, only FHB was yield limiting. However, in 2016 and 2017, we dealt with both stripe rust and FHB in the same season. Obviously, this year could be different, but the stripe rust situation is starting to “heat up” a bit to our south. The “Wheat Ag Pest Monitor for Stripe Rust”  indicates that there are confirmed cases of stripe rust in central Illinois (Fig. 2). This situation needs to be watched carefully over the next 1-2 weeks in Wisconsin.


Figure 2. Confirmed stripe rust observations in the U.S. as of May 19, 2021.


We are rapidly approaching the first growth stage where the application of fungicide might be warranted if stripe rust is found in your locale or is nearby. Based on recent published research, in years where stripe rust was active at the emerging flag leaf growth stage (Feekes 8), we obtained excellent control of stripe rust and a positive return on investment where we sprayed fungicide at this growth stage with a second application of fungicide for FHB control around anthesis.

Currently there is no stripe rust confirmed in Wisconsin but given the rainy weather recently and the positive confirmations in Illinois, this situation should be closely monitored, and a fungicide might be warranted on susceptible varieties if stripe rust is found prior to heading.

If you decide you need to apply a fungicide, there are many choices with decent efficacy against stripe rust. Again, consult the Fungicide Efficacy for Control of Wheat Diseases table for the best ratings for the disease. Find a product that is efficacious and fits your farm budget.

So, what should I do about Fusarium head blight?

Figure 3. Fusarium head blight of winter wheat

Fusarium head blight (Fig. 3) has been a perennial problem for us in Wisconsin over the last 5 years. Not only have we seen significant damage and yield reductions due to the disease, but we have seen significant discounts at the elevator for levels of deoxynivalenol (DON or Vomitoxin) above 2 ppm. It is important to manage this disease actively here in Wisconsin.

Be sure you know the relative susceptibility of the varieties you have planted. We have excellent data showing significant reductions of FHB where we use a resistant variety and then layer a fungicide application on top. In 2019 we evaluated the susceptible variety, Hopewell, against the resistant variety, Harpoon. Figure 4 shows the FHB levels for the two varieties which were also subjected to a fungicide application. Clearly variety resistance works.

When it comes to fungicides for FHB, there are really just three products to choose from. These are Caramba, Prosaro, and Miravis Ace. Again the Fungicide Efficacy for Control of Wheat Diseases table shows the efficacy ratings of these products against FHB. Timing is everything when using a fungicide for FHB management. Be sure to time applications at the start of anthesis or within 5-7 days after the start. This is the ideal window of opportunity to control FHB and reduce DON levels in the finished grain. Spraying earlier than anthesis or later than about a week after the start of anthesis will result in lost efficacy, or no control of FHB. Also, these fungicides are effective against stripe rust, so if that disease happens to move in later, a single application of fungicide at the anthesis timing should take care of both problems.


Figure 4. Fusarium head blight index (FHB Index) from a 2019 integrated management trial where the susceptible variety, Hopewell, and the resistant variety, Harpoon, were both treated with various fungicide programs or not treated with fungicide.


There is a disease prediction tool for FHB of wheat. You can find that tool at tool should be monitored frequently as your crop approaches anthesis and soon after. It can help you determine if your crop is at risk, based on the weather conditions. While most wheat as of May 19, 2021 is not near heading yet in Wisconsin, you can see in figure 5 that for susceptible FHB varieties, the risk is currently low. Again, dry weather leading up to this week has not been favorable for FHB.


Figure 5. Fusarium head blight risk as of May 19, 2021 in the U.S.


The ‘Take Home’ for wheat management over the next few weeks.

This can be cooked down to two main points. Here they are:

  • In some years applying fungicides for stripe rust on susceptible cultivars around Feekes 8 will be needed. Make this decision based on the following:
    1. The known susceptibility of the variety
    2. Local presence of strip rust and/or confirmed reports nearby
    3. Favorable weather (frequent rains and temperatures less than 80 F)
  • Plan to apply an FHB fungicide application – especially on susceptible varieties
    1. Shoot for Anthesis or up to 5-days after the start of anthesis for Prosaro and Caramba fungicides
    2. Can go slightly earlier (Feekes 10.5; Efficacy slightly reduced compared to typical timing) up to 5-days after the start of anthesis for Miravis Ace
    3. Watch the “Scab Alerts” – it isn’t perfect, but can help you make a decision (


Wisconsin Winter Wheat Disease Update – April 15, 2015

Damon Smith, Extension Field Crops Pathologist, Department of Plant Pathology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Figure 1. Winter wheat plants in a field in Southern Wisconsin

Figure 1. Winter wheat plants in a field in Southern Wisconsin

This week I scouted winter wheat in research trials located at the Arlington Agricultural research station and also some commercial fields in southern Wisconsin. Wheat in these locations has greened up and is beginning to tiller (Fig. 1). I have observed very little winterkill on winter wheat in the fields I have looked at. Overall the winter wheat crop is looking good at these early stages with stands looking strong for the most part (Fig. 2).

Unlike the last couple of years, I have not observed any wheat diseases yet. Sometimes, Septoria leaf blotch can be observed very early in Wisconsin. We should begin to scout for diseases during these early tillering periods. If you find that Septoria leaf blotch is already present in wheat fields, then the base is set to build disease quickly if conditions are cool and wet this spring. If the spring turns to being cool and wet and a susceptible variety present, then this disease will increase and can cause enough damage to limit grain yield. To learn more about leaf blotch disease on wheat, consult THIS FACT SHEET.

Figure 2. Winter wheat stand in southern Wisconsin

Figure 2. Winter wheat stand in southern Wisconsin

Another disease to scout for at these early stages of wheat development is powdery mildew. This disease starts out as a white fluffy growth on the surface of the leaves and can progress quickly when humidity is high and temperatures fluctuate from warm days to cool nights. As the disease progresses, it can continue to cover more leaves, and the white growth may become more gray or brown in appearance. Like Septoria, if you notice early infections of powdery mildew, you have a susceptible variety planted, and conditions are conducive for the disease, then careful monitoring will be critical for making decisions about in-season control. To learn more about powdery mildew on wheat, consult THIS FACT SHEET.

Spraying fungicide when plants are very young (prior to jointing) isn’t generally recommended in Wisconsin. However, spraying to protect the flag leaf and later growth stages during heading can help preserve yield when this disease is a problem. In 2013 we conducted a fungicide trial on wheat where Septoria leaf blotch was the main disease of concern. In that trial we found that applications of fungicide at the early flag leaf emergence stage (Feekes 8) gave us good control of Septoria leaf blotch, which translated into giving us a yield increase over not spraying or spraying prior to jointing (Feekes 5). To read more about the results of this fungicide trial, you can visit THIS WEBPAGE.

In 2014, conditions were not very favorable for leaf diseases on winter wheat. However, Fusarium head scab was prevalent throughout much of Wisconsin. In our 2014 fungicide efficacy trials, we found that spraying at flag leaf emergence (Feekes 8) did not offer much yield advantage. However, spraying at anthesis (first flower; Feekes 10.5.1) did provide a significant increase in yield and significantly reduced the level of vomitoxin in grain samples. To read more about the results of the 2014 fungicide trial, you can visit THIS WEBPAGE.

The 2013 and 2014 field trials demonstrate the importance of frequent scouting of wheat to determine the right timing of fungicide application. In some years, you might need to spray at Feekes 8, in others at Feekes 10.5.1, while in some years at both timings.

In addition to the results of our field trials, you might also consult the 2015 Small Grains Fungicide Efficacy Table that was recently updated. This table offers unbiased, university research-based ratings of fungicides used on small grains. It is compiled by university research and extension pathologists from all over the country. You can find the latest table by CLICKING HERE.

It is a good idea to begin scouting now to determine what diseases are already present in wheat. Continue to watch weather forecasts as the crop matures and make plans for disease intervention measures (such as fungicide) if conducive disease conditions are present near flag leaf emergence and/or heading later this season. SCOUT, SCOUT, SCOUT!

New Wheat Powdery Mildew Fact Sheet

A new fact sheet concerning powdery mildew of wheat has recently been published. The fact sheet describes symptoms of the disease and how to best manage it. To obtain a PDF version of the fact sheet, visit the ‘fact sheet’ section of the UW-Madison Field Crops Pathology website or CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD.