Topdressing wheat with nitrogen: Timing, application methods, source, and rates
Now is a good time to start planning for topdressing nitrogen (N) of the winter wheat crop. With adequate soil moisture in most areas of the state, and some fairly small wheat in many fields due to late planting in south-central Kansas and dry weather in southwest Kansas during the fall, there are some key elements that need to be considered when deciding on the exact program you plan to use. These include: timing, N source, application method and N rate.
Ideally, the N in topdress applications will be moved into the root zone with precipitation well before jointing begins in order to be most efficiently utilized by wheat. With some of the small wheat out there this spring, having adequate N available to support spring tillering when it breaks dormancy will be important. Some combination of fall preplant or at-seeding N, and/or early topdressed N, is also normally needed to supply adequate N to support head differentiation. This is the stage when head size is being determined, and can begin about two weeks before jointing. The following will discuss some of the issues to considering when making topdressing decisions.
The most important factor in getting a good return on topdress N is usually timing. It is critical to get the N on early enough to have the maximum potential impact on yield. While some producers often wait until spring just prior to jointing, this can be too late in some years, especially when little or no N was applied in the fall. For the well-drained medium- to fine-textured soils that dominate our wheat acres, the odds of losing much of the N that is topdress-applied in the winter is low since we typically don’t get enough precipitation over the winter to cause significant denitrification or leaching. For these soils, topdressing can begin anytime now, and usually the earlier the better.
For wheat grown on sandier soils, earlier is not necessarily better for N applications. On these soils, there is a greater chance that N applied in the fall or early winter could leach completely out of the root zone if precipitation is unusually heavy during the winter. Waiting until closer to spring green-up to make topdress N applications on sandier soils will help manage this risk.
On poorly drained and/or shallow claypan soils, especially in south central or southeast Kansas, N applied in the fall or early winter would have a significant risk of denitrification N loss. Waiting until closer to spring green-up to make topdress N applications on these soils will help minimize the potential for this N loss.
Also keep in mind that N should not be applied to the soil surface when the ground is deeply frozen and especially when snow covered. This will help prevent runoff losses with snow melt or heavy precipitation.
On both sandy soils subject to leaching and poorly drained soils prone to denitrification, split applications may be a strategy to consider. This would involve applying enough N in the fall at or prior to planting to give good support for fall growth and tillering -- generally 20-30 pounds of N. Then follow this up with an additional shot of about 20-30 pounds of N in late winter or early spring to support spring tillering, possibly applied with herbicides. This late-winter/early-spring application becomes especially important when stands are thin due to poor emergence, as many fields in southwest Kansas this year. Finally, come back around jointing or a few days later with a final application to support heading and grain fill.
Most topdressing is broadcast applied. In high-residue situations, this can result in some immobilization of N, especially where liquid UAN is used. If no herbicides are applied with the N, producers can get some benefit from applying the N in a dribble band on 15- to 18-inch centers. This can minimize immobilization and may provide for a little more consistent crop response.
Figure 1. Streamer bars used for topdressing wheat in a surface band. Photo by Ray Asebedo, K-State Research and Extension.
The typical sources of N used for topdressing wheat are UAN solution and dry urea. Numerous trials by K-State over the years have shown that both are equally effective. In no-till situations, there may be some slight advantage to applying dry urea since some of it will fall to the soil surface and be less affected by immobilization than broadcast liquid UAN, which tends to get hung up on surface residues.
Figure 2. Urea broadcast to tillering wheat in a topdress application. Photo by Romulo Lollato, K-State Research and Extension.
Dribble (surface band) UAN applications would also avoid some of this tie-up on surface crop residues as well. But if producers plan to tank-mix with an herbicide, they’ll have to use liquid UAN and broadcast it.
Some of the new controlled-release products such as polyurethane coated urea (ESN) might be considered on very sandy soils prone to leaching, or poorly drained soils prone to denitrification. Generally a 50:50 blend of standard urea and the coated urea -- which will provide some N immediately to support tillering and head development and also continue to release some N in later stages of development. This probably works best in settings with high loss potential.
Producers should have started the season with a certain N recommendation in hand, ideally based on a profile N soil test done before the crop is planted and before any N has been applied. It is not too late to use the profile N soil test if taken in late winter/very early spring before the wheat greens up. While it won’t be as accurate as when sampled in the fall, it can still point out fields or areas in fields with high levels of available nitrate N. Unfortunately it is not reliable in measuring recently applied N. So if a high rate of N has already been applied, a late winter profile sample probably shouldn’t be taken. Remember that topdressing should complement or supplement the N applied in the fall and the residual soil N present in the soil. The total N application, planting and topdressing, should equal the target recommended rate.
If the wheat was grazed this fall and winter, producers should add an additional 30-40 lbs N/acre for every 100 lbs of beef weight gain removed from the field. If conditions are favorable for heavy fall and/or spring grazing, additional N maybe necessary, especially for a grain crop.
Low grain prices may also play a role for N rate decisions this spring. However, is important to keep in mind that N is the most limiting nutrient for wheat, and the optimum agronomic N application rate will likely result in economic returns. After good yielding crops last year, it is likely that residual soil N will be relatively low. This can also contribute to the frequency and magnitude of yield response to N fertilizer applications.
Some fields may also benefit from an application of sulfur and chloride. Like N, these nutrients are mobile in the soil, and a topdress application before joining is considered an effective application time. Sulfur and chloride topdress applications should be made based on soil test and history of response.