An adjacent plot was clearly not as lush and green, and more importantly it had noticeably fewer plants per square foot. Again, this treatment was the reverse of what is recommended. These wheat plants were given the full rate of nitrogen, but it was applied in mid-March.

The same variety of wheat, the same growing conditions, same soil, etc., produced high yields from late nitrogen and also low yields from late nitrogen. The only difference was plant stand.

“Good stand, late nitrogen and poor stand early nitrogen. Seems simple enough, but it requires growers to apply nitrogen at two different times, and often that just doesn’t happen — for a plethora of well-intended reasons.

“In the lower plant stands, we would normally recommend a 60-60 split of nitrogen in February and March. The wheat specialist didn’t have to do much explaining to growers attending the wheat field day in Rowland. Neither late applied nitrogen nor early applied nitrogen performed well in the side-by-side test conducted on this farm in southern North Carolina.

“These plants clearly haven’t tillered well and we don’t have enough plants per square foot — we needed a dose of nitrogen as early as possible to get a better stand and second dose in March to get a better yield,” Weisz says.

North Carolina Department of Agriculture Agronomist Ben Knox says a series of similar test results across the state led to recent changes in recommendations for nitrogen application on wheat.

The revised guidelines take into account crop biomass and often call for significantly less nitrogen than previous recommendations.

Growers lucky enough to have a stand, despite the poor planting conditions last fall, may be able to use the new guidelines to reduce input costs without compromising yield.

“If the tiller count is low, growers should put out some nitrogen as soon as possible,” Knox said.

“If there are fewer than 50 tillers per square foot of row, growers need to apply up to half (about 60 pounds) of the spring nitrogen now. For counts between 50 and 70 per square foot, 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen should be applied. If the tiller count is high, but the wheat is yellow, an application of 30 pounds of nitrogen is appropriate.

“I have seen fields with as few as 15 to 20 tillers per square foot at this time of year end up making good wheat,” Knox said.

“A timely nitrogen application, followed by some dry weather and warm temperatures, can yield surprising results. However, even if the wheat is thin and has to be abandoned, the nitrogen will not have been wasted. It will have made the wheat a better cover crop.”

As Carolina-Virginia wheat growers approach the critical time for applying nitrogen to their crop, Weisz offers some common sense advice that would bode well for optimum production.

“My former colleague in Virginia, Dan Brann, used to say if you have thin wheat there is no job on the planet that pays a higher hourly rate than applying nitrogen to a thin stand — the yield differences are that high,” Weisz says.