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Changing crop phenology is considered an important bio-indicator of climate change, with the recent warming trend causing an advancement in crop phenology. Little is known about the contributions of changes in sowing dates and cultivars to long-term trends in crop phenology, particularly for winter crops such as winter wheat.

Here, we analyze a long-term (1952–2013) dataset of phenological observations across western Germany and observations from a two-year field experiment to directly compare the phenologies of winter wheat cultivars released between 1950 and 2006. We found a 14–18% decline in the temperature sum required from emergence to flowering for the modern cultivars of winter wheat compared with the cultivars grown in the 1950s and 1960s.

The trends in the flowering day obtained from a phenology model parameterized with the field observations showed that changes in the mean temperature and cultivar properties contributed similarly to the trends in the flowering day, whereas the effects of changes in the sowing day were negligible. We conclude that the single-cultivar concept commonly used in climate change impact assessments results in an overestimation of winter wheat sensitivity to increasing temperature, which suggests that studies on climate change effects should consider changes in cultivars.

Published in Nature Scientific Reports 8, Article number: 4891