U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Document Type


Date of this Version



Published in Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 87 (1997) 291-300.


Heat units, expressed in growing degree-days (GDD), are frequently used to describe the timing of biological processes. The basic equation used is GDD = [(TMAX + TMIN)/2] - TBASE where TMAX and TMIN are daily maximum and minimum air temperature, respectively, and TBASE is the base temperature. Two methods of interpreting this equation for calculating GDD are: (1) if the daily mean temperature is less than the base, it is set equal to the base temperature, or (2) if TMAX or TMIN < TBASE they are reset equal to TBASE. The objective of this paper is to show the differences which can result from using these two methods to estimate GDD, and make researchers and practitioners aware of the need to report clearly which method was used in the calculations. Although percent difference between methods of calculation are dependent on TMAX and TMIN data used to compute GDD, our comparisons have produced differences up to 83% when using a 0°C base for wheat (Triticum aestivum L.). Greater differences were found for corn (Zea mays L.) when using a base temperature of 10°C. Differences between the methods occur if only TMIN is less than TBASE and then Method 1 accumulates fewer GDD than Method 2. When incorporating an upper threshold, as commonly done with corn, there was a greater difference between the two methods. Not recognizing the discrepancy between methods can result in confusion and add error in quantifying relationships between heat unit accumulation and timing of events in crop development and growth, particularly in crop simulation models. This paper demonstrates the need for authors to clearly communicate the method of calculating GDD so others can correctly interpret and apply reported results.