Each year producers ask the question when is the best time to apply N to wheat? Also, is it ok to apply N on frozen ground?
For any N application the question to ask is, “When does the crop need N?” Wheat does not require large amounts of N until stem elongation (Feekes Growth Stage 6), which is the middle or the end of April depending on the location in state. Ohio research has shown no yield benefit from applications made prior to this time period. Soil organic matter and/or N applied at planting generally provide sufficient N for early growth until stem elongation.
Nitrogen applied prior to rapid utilization has the potential to be lost and unavailable for the crop. Nitrogen source will also affect the potential for loss. Urea-ammonium nitrate (28%) has the greatest potential for loss, ammonium sulfate the least, and urea would be somewhere between the two other sources.
Ohio research has shown yield losses from N applied prior to green-up regardless of the N source. The level of loss depends on the year. This same research has not observed a yield increase from applications made prior to green-up compared to green-up or Feekes Growth Stage 6 applications.
There is a legitimate concern that wet weather may prevent application of N at early stem elongation. Ohio research has shown a yield decrease may occur when N application is delayed until Feekes Growth Stage 9 (early boot). Thus a practical compromise is to topdress N any time fields are suitable for application after initial green-up to early stem elongation. There is still a potential for loss even at green-up applications. To lessen this risk a producer may want to use a N source that has a lower potential for loss such as urea or ammonium sulfate. ESN (polymer-coated urea) would be another option but it needs to be blended with at urea or ammonium sulfate to insure enough N will be available for the crop between Feekes GS 6 – 9. The source of N becomes less important as the application date approaches stem elongation. The percentage of urea and/or ammonium sulfate would need to be increased with ESN for application times closer to Feekes GS 6.
A split application of N may also be used to spread the risk of N loss; however, research has not shown a yield increase from this practice. The first application should be applied no sooner than green-up. A smaller rate should be applied with the first application since little is needed by the crop at that time and the larger rate applied closer to Feekes GS 6.
In summary, a producer may get away with applying N prior to green-up on wheat. However university data has not shown a yield advantage for these early applications, but results have shown in certain years a major N loss and yield reduction from applications prior to green-up. Why take the risk, just wait until green-up; the wheat does not need most of the N until April and May anyway.