Normally we would be concerned about producers applying nitrogen to wheat on frozen ground this time of year. The recent wave of abnormally warm temperatures has removed any frost that was in the ground and suggests that green-up may come sooner than recent years.
Even if wheat comes out of winter earlier, the crop still does not require large amounts of N until stem elongation/jointing (Feekes Growth Stage 6), which is generally the middle or the end of April depending on the location in the state and spring temperatures. 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 that yield losses may occur from N applied prior to green-up regardless of the N source. The level of loss depends on the year (losses would be smaller if the ground is not frozen or snow/ice covered). This same research did not observe a yield increase from applications made prior to green-up compared to green-up or Feekes Growth Stage 6 applications. Keep in mind that green-up is a descriptive, relative term and not a definable growth stage. Our definition of green-up is when the new growth of spring has covered the dead tissue from winter giving the field a solid green color – thus, growing plants.
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 (flag leaf fully emerged). 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 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 producer may want to consider the use of a urease inhibitor with urea if conditions are favorable for volatilization losses: warming temperatures, drying winds and no rain in the forecast for 48 hours.
A split application of N may also be used to spread the risk of N loss and to improve N efficiency; however, Ohio State University research has not shown a yield increase from this practice compared to a single application after green-up. In a split system, 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.