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Weighing more winter wheat fertilizer

As the spring warmup continues, the Plains winter wheat crop's "stretching its legs," moving out of dormancy and into a homestretch that could be tough for many fields where moisture's been well short of normal.

These circumstances have many farmers wondering what their crop might yield this summer. That's more than just a source of speculation right now; it's one of a couple determining factors when it comes to whether or not you'll put down a nitrogen application this spring.

The dry conditions in parts of the Plains, namely Nebraska where the sharpest dryness in the region persists, there's likely a lot of the fertilizer that was applied last summer and fall still in the soil "just waiting for the crop to begin growing," says University of Nebraska Extension soils specialist Gary Hergert. So, that's got some farmers already busy trying to decide how much -- if any -- they'll apply this spring.

"Several producers have reported that they have resampled this spring and found higher levels and will use that information plus stand to determine a final N rate," Hergert says. "Wheat growth ranges from tillering (stage 3 to 4) in eastern Nebraska to just breaking dormancy in western Nebraska."

There are a couple of major factors to consider before you make the nitrogen decision. First, if you're in one of the areas hardest-hit by the drought, you may not even want to go to the expense of putting down spring fertilizer. "Limited winter and early spring precipitation in western wheat-growing areas, the lack of snow cover, and several days of strong winds in March have producers wondering if and when they should apply nitrogen this spring," Hergert says. "Now that wheat has broken dormancy, [farmers] can evaluate stand, weed pressure, and soil moisture conditions."

If you're on the fence as to whether or not you'll put down more nitrogen, consider the wheat market, too. The numbers there add up fairly well right now, Hergert says. "Wheat prices are slightly higher than a year ago while fertilizer N prices are similar to last year and don’t appear to be increasing," he adds.

Once you've decided on whether or not to apply, first find out what's already out in your fields. "Nitrogen rates should be based on soil tests for residual nitrate to a three-foot depth; however, if you do not have a soil sample, use a base level of 6 ppm nitrate-N for wheat planted after fallow and 4 ppm for wheat planted after an adequately fertilized previous crop. With drier and cooler conditions this year, wheat development is about normal, so you still have time to apply N before wheat reaches the jointing stage," Hergert says.

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