Farm Progress

Eastern Nebraska grower changes up his nitrogen management program over the last five years and improves efficiency.

Tyler Harris, Editor

June 29, 2017

5 Min Read
SPLIT APPLICATIONS: Jason Richters applies a 32% UAN solution through the pivot, which makes up 95% of the fertilizer solution he's applying; the rest is 5% thiosulfate.

Today, you'd never know Jason Richters was once a one-shot-of-nitrogen kind of guy. However, just five years ago, he was knifing in all his nitrogen in the form of anhydrous in fall.

"It was cheap, and it's a way to alleviate pressure on the operator in the spring," says Richters, who farms in Seward and York counties. "We didn't have the nitrate concerns we do now. Honestly, we didn't give a lot of thought to if or how we might be impacting our water supply."

Currently, Richters applies no anhydrous, and applies nitrogen through several split applications in spring and summer. How did he get here? Mike Zwingman, agronomy R&D manager with Central Valley Ag, who has worked with Jason over the last five years in developing his nitrogen program, notes, "The evolution with Jason has been rather fast and furious."

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Richters began working with Zwingman back in 2011, when Zwingman was seeking growers to participate in nitrogen trials. Richters became part of a nitrogen and water advisory group organized by CVA.

In 2012, he went from all anhydrous in the fall to applying a lower rate of anhydrous in the spring followed by liquid nitrogen through a coulter. In 2013, he adopted strip till, and decided to move away from anhydrous entirely, instead applying variable-rate urea and MAP (monoammonium phosphate; 11% nitrogen and 52% phosphorus) or MESZ (similar to MAP but with 12% nitrogen and 40% phosphorus) as a starter fertilizer. Initially, he followed this with a nitrogen application with herbicide, but has since moved to fertigation or using a high-clearance applicator equipped with 360 Yield Center's Y-Drops around V5 to V8, before a final fertigation treatment at or around tassel.

Steep learning curve
The evolution has been fast, but the amount of time spent on deciding how to apply nitrogen and how much to apply has increased dramatically. "Instead of it being one or two conversations during the year, it comes up in every conversation we have," Zwingman says. However, he notes, "On a fertilizer basis, I think Jason's efficiency has picked up the difference in production cost."

These decisions aren't always easy. That's why Richters works with three trusted advisers — Zwingman, a sales agronomist at CVA and an independent crop consultant — to make decisions on these applications. "When those three groups come together and are in agreement, that makes me feel a lot better," Richters says. "I know what Mike and my crop consultant and sales agronomist are trying to accomplish; they know what I'm trying to accomplish, and that helps."


BIG DECISIONS: Mike Zwingman (right) discusses a recommendation on Climate FieldView's nitrogen model tool with Jason Richters. Richters uses this tool to help determine an in-season nitrogen rate based on yield goal, population, how much nitrogen was applied in starter fertilizer and rainfall. Richters uses the model to get a recommendation based on yield goal, population and rainfall.

One of the biggest decisions is determining how much to adjust in-season based on plant population — the net effect of stand percentage (NESP).

"You start planning for the season based on yield goal, fertility, yield history and hybrid. You start with a nitrogen number, and the first adjustment comes when we realize the plant population," Richters says. "That should produce X amount of ears. Does that number correlate with our yield goal?"

In-season adjustments
For the last two years, Richters has used The Climate Corporation's Climate FieldView modeling tool to help determine an in-season nitrogen rate based on yield goal, population, how much nitrogen was applied in starter fertilizer and rainfall. He also works with CVA to take tissue tests and soil samples to make sure the model's recommendation matches up with what the plant needs.

The grower's comfort level also plays a part in determining how much nitrogen is applied. After last year's rainy weather, Richters and Zwingman noticed the model consistently showed several fields were short of nitrogen, and had to determine how much to apply to make up for the deficiency.

"We consciously made a decision that 10 pounds short was acceptable, 20 pounds short wasn't, but 30 pounds over definitely wasn't acceptable. We would have burned $15 per acre," says Zwingman.

"Once you're 30 over, you're 30 over. You can't take it back," Richters adds.

Zwingman adds the longer a grower can hold off on an in-season nitrogen application, the more confident the grower can be in their yield potential, and the more confident they can be with their nitrogen rate.

No matter how much preparation goes into a nitrogen plan, Mother Nature can make or break it — and that includes rainy weather that prevents in-season applications. Or the weather might cooperate, providing the water and sunlight needed for a stand to take advantage of the nitrogen in the field.

For example, in 2012, when he first started working with Zwingman in his nitrogen trials, Richters tried fertigation for the first time, in addition to strip till to improve nitrogen placement and push populations to increase the net effect of stand percentage. When harvest rolled around, his strip-tilled and fertigated acres yielded over 270 bushels per acre – a 20% increase over the previous five-year average.

While Richters questions whether it was due to management or a combination of irrigation and adequate sunlight for photosynthesis in a drought year, he notes similar fields that were not strip-tilled or fertigated saw a yield increase of about 10% over the five-year yield average. Zwingman says it's likely a combination of both management and ideal conditions.

"That's where the journey takes us," Zwingman says. "We can say it was because of the year and the weather, but we wouldn't have seen those yields if Jason hadn't done a lot of things he did."


About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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