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Be deliberate with wheat nitrogen schemes

Trevor Smith, TFC Agronomist 1/28/2019

Aside from stand establishment, there are few things that can influence wheat yields as much as nitrogen management. As the wheat growing season progresses and green up draws near, it’s a good time to think about what production strategies are most likely to provide opportunities for success. Because each growing season presents a unique set of conditions and challenges, it’s important to consider several factors when creating a nitrogen plan that’s best for your farm this spring. Here are a few key concepts to keep in mind as you work through the process.

First, evaluate where you are. It is crucial that you scout each field to evaluate the crop before deciding how you will manage it going forward. Don’t make generalized assumptions based on the past or other fields you have seen. Specifically, your initial goal should be to determine the density and the consistency of the stand. How many plants do you have per square foot? Additionally, how many tillers per plant are present? Remember, the total number of heads at harvest will be a factor of the number of plants X the number of tillers per plant. Planting date as well as growing conditions in late fall and early winter will largely determine tiller counts; however, we can promote tiller development to a degree by applying appropriate rates of nitrogen prior to jointing.

Determine an aggressive yet realistic yield goal. Undoubtedly, you had a goal in mind when you planted your crop, but the growing season so far has influenced the yield potential. Objectively consider the production history of each field. Also, take an honest look at what foundation blocks are in place such as the previously mentioned stand metrics as well as the pH, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrient fertility levels of each field. Once you have used your yield goal to decide the total amount of nitrogen you will apply, you can shift your attention to application timing(s).

Often, farmers are conflicted about whether to make one nitrogen application or two. There are cases, in my opinion, where the best option is obvious, such as late-planted fields that experience harsh winters and have thin, stressed stands (<25 plants per sq. ft. and few tillers). There is little doubt these fields will benefit from early or pre-jointing stage nitrogen applications to promote tiller development followed by another application at green up. In other situations, though, the best answer might be a single application. In years where we have predominantly early planting dates combined with a warm winter, tiller counts will be high in many fields. In my mind, the additional yield advantage of a split application of nitrogen on fields like I just described may not outweigh the risk of losing a significant portion of early applied pre-jointing nitrogen to environmental conditions prior to uptake.

Whatever rates and timings you opt for, be sure your plants get the most out of the nitrogen you apply. This means maintaining an appropriate nitrogen-to-sulphur ratio in the fertilizer you apply, as well as protecting against the major nitrogen loss pathways present on your farm with a quality nitrogen stabilizer or nitrogen manager product.

Nitrogen management in any crop is a huge challenge and wheat is certainly no different. Each year, for each field you farm, there is a “right” nitrogen plan. Hindsight is always 20/20, and the reality is that we likely won’t know what the “right” plan for a given year is until after harvest. One thing is for certain, though – the “right” plan will not be the same every year. Instead of doing it the way you always have, consider taking a more deliberate approach to your wheat nitrogen management this year. Contact your local Co-op for more information on nitrogen management and assistance in developing a customized plan for your farm.

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