Due to the low efficiency of nitrogen fertilizers in flooded rice paddies, there is a rising demand for tools able to detect crop nitrogen status in space and time to allow farmers to use the technical novelties of precision agriculture to improve fertilizer management in extensive fields. This work sets up an operational approach to increase nitrogen use efficiency of top-dressing fertilization by supporting variable rate fertilization in rice cropping systems. The procedure exploits (i) crop modelling to identify best periods for fertilization (When), (ii) Sentinel-2 imagery to draw management zones (MZ) and lead field scouting (Where), and (iii) smartphone app to measure nitrogen nutritional index (NNI) (How much). Automatically generated MZ from Sentinel-2 data were able to identify within field patches with different nutritional status and NNI data well described the crop temporal dynamic in relation to crop development and nutritional needs. The workflow was implemented to provide farmers with timely information on plant nutritional status during the 2018 growing season to define site-specific fertilization strategies implemented with variable rate technology (VRT). Tests conducted on 6 fields over 30 ha in 3 farms showed the feasibility of the proposed workflow in real farming conditions allowing a reduction of applied fertilizer up to 25% in the areas with sufficient nutritional status. Demonstration revealed that VRT based on geospatial information from integrated in-field and satellite data can provide agronomic and environmental benefits compared with standard fertilization resulting in promising outcomes both in terms of yield (increase in the range 0.2–0.5 t ha−1) and nitrogen use efficiency (increase up to 7.8%). © 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Science+Business Media, LLC part of Springer Nature.