The utility of the decimal growth stage (DGS) scoring system for cereals is reviewed. The DGS is the most widely used scale in academic and commercial applications because of its comprehensive coverage of cereal developmental stages, the ease of use and definition provided and adoption by official agencies. The DGS has demonstrable and established value in helping to optimise the timing of agronomic inputs, particularly with regard to plant growth regulators, herbicides, fungicides and soluble nitrogen fertilisers. In addition, the DGS is used to help parameterise crop models, and also in understanding the response and adaptation of crops to the environment. The value of the DGS for increasing precision relies on it indicating, to some degree, the various stages in the development of the stem apex and spike. Coincidence of specific growth stage scores with the transition of the apical meristem from a vegetative to a reproductive state, and also with the period of meiosis, is unreliable. Nonetheless, in pot experiments it is shown that the broad period of booting (DGS 41–49) appears adequate for covering the duration when the vulnerability of meiosis to drought and heat stress is exposed. Similarly, the duration of anthesis (61–69) is particularly susceptible to abiotic stresses: initially from a fertility perspective, but increasingly from a mean grain weight perspective as flowering progresses to DGS 69 and then milk development. These associations with DGS can have value at the crop level of organisation: for interpreting environmental effects, and in crop modelling. However, genetic, biochemical and physiological analysis to develop greater understanding of stress acclimation during the vegetative state, and tolerance at meiosis, does require more precision than DGS can provide. Similarly, individual floret analysis is needed to further understand the genetic basis of stress tolerance during anthesis.