Improving fertiliser nitrogen (N) use efficiency is essential to increase productivity and avoid environmental damage. Using a 15N mass balance approach, we investigated the effects of five N fertiliser management strategies to test the hypothesis that increasing uptake of applied N by wheat improves productivity and reduces loss of N in a semi-arid environment. Three experiments were conducted between 2012 and 2014. Treatments included urea application (50 kg N/ha) at sowing with and without nitrification inhibitor (3,4-dimethylpyrazole phosphate, DMPP) and surface broadcast with and without urease inhibitor (n-butyl thiophosphoric triamide, NBPT) at the end of tillering plus an unfertilised control. It was found that deferring fertiliser application until the end of tillering decreased losses of fertiliser N (35–52%) through increasing uptake by the crop and or recovery in the soil at harvest, while maintaining yield except when rainfall following application was low. In this case, deferring application reduced fertiliser uptake (− 71%) and grain yield (− 18%) and increased recovery of N in the soil (+ 121%). Use of DMPP or NBPT reduced N loss where seasonal conditions were conducive to denitrification during winter (DMPP) and volatilisation or denitrification later in the season (NBPT). ... mehrTheir effect on grain yield was less significant; DMPP increased yield (+ 3–31%) in all years and NBPT increased yield (+ 7–11%) in 2 of 3 years compared to unamended urea. The majority of crop N uptake was supplied from soil reserves and as a result, crop recovery of applied N was not strongly related to grain yield response.