Record low temperatures with periodic warm days continue to wreak havoc on this year’s wheat crop. Some fields are beginning to show more pronounced damage while other fields have moderate to little damage.

Producers wanting to make a nitrogen application now should consider utilizing a controlled release product. Other forms of nitrogen should be applied once the wheat crop breaks dormancy and begins 'greening up.' This typically occurs in mid-February in Kentucky.  

If nitrogen is applied too early, prior to 'green-up,' there are some factors to take into consideration. Nitrogen applied too early in the year can promote excessive vegetative growth. If this early growth is followed by prolonged cold weather, damage can occur that reduces yield. Further, there is a good chance you will not apply the correct amount of nitrogen. 

Economics should also be considered. Controlled release products typically cost more than “standard” nitrogen forms. Is the additional cost associated with the controlled release product worth it to your operation in order to apply a few weeks earlier?

Based upon research at the University of Kentucky, the most profitable wheat yields are attained when the crop is assessed for health and stand after ‘green-up’. This assessment will allow the most accurate assessment of nitrogen needs for the remainder of the season. Is it healthy? Does it have a good number of tillers? Is there any winter damage? 

The answers to these questions will tell you how much nitrogen should be applied. More nitrogen should be applied to wheat crops that have damage, few tillers and poor color. Less nitrogen should be applied to wheat crops that are healthy, with no winter damage and lots of tillers. 

It is even possible that the crop is so severely damaged that nitrogen application will not be profitable. The key is to assess the status of the crop after ‘green-up’.

Being patient and waiting for ‘green-up’ to apply nitrogen will be difficult. However, waiting for ‘green-up’ will give you a better chance to properly assess your wheat crop and maximize profitability. For more information, consult University of Kentucky Extension publication ID-125, A Comprehensive Guide to Wheat Management in Kentucky or your local county extension agent.