Using Aerial Spectral Indices to Determine Fertility Rate and Timing in Winter Wheat
Tiller density is indicative of the overall health of winter wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) and is used to determine in-season nitrogen (N) application. If tiller density exceeds 538 tillers per m2 at GS 25, then an N application at that stage is not needed, only at GS 30. However, it is often difficult to obtain an accurate representation of tiller density across an entire field. Normalized difference vegetative index (NDVI) and normalized difference red edge (NDRE) have been significantly correlated with tiller density when collected from the ground. With the advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their ability to collect NDVI and NDRE from the air, this study was established to examine the relationship between NDVI, NDRE, and tiller density, and to verify whether N could be applied based on these two indices. From 2018 to 2020, research trials were established across Virginia to develop a model describing the relationship between aerial NDVI, aerial NDRE, and tiller density counted on the ground, in small plots. In 2021, the model was used to apply N in small plots at two locations, where the obtained grain yield was the same whether N was applied based on tiller density, NDVI, or NDRE. From 2022 to 2023, the model was applied at six locations across the state on large scale growers’ fields to compare the amount of GS 25 N recommended by tiller density, NDVI, and NDRE. At three locations, NDVI and NDRE recommended the same N rates as the tiller density method, while at two locations, NDVI and NDRE recommended less N than tiller density. At one location, NDVI and NDRE recommended more N than tiller density. However, across all six locations, there was no difference in grain yield whether N was applied based on tiller density, NDVI, or NDRE. This study indicated that UAV-based NDVI and NDRE are excellent proxies for tiller density determination, and can be used to accurately and economically apply N at GS 25 in winter wheat production.