I've said before that as an ag journalist, it's easy for me to look at things from the 10,000-foot perspective. In my case, this often means taking an ideal strategy and trying to apply it to any given real-world management scenario.
Take split nitrogen applications. University research has shown that corn yields can be maintained (and often improved) by applying later in the season. However, real-world events have shown us that this may not always be possible for the grower. Sure, many growers in Nebraska have access to center-pivot irrigation and may be certified for chemigation, but fertigation treatments can be delayed by rainy weather. It doesn't make much sense to irrigate after a good rain.
Meanwhile, nitrogen solution fertilizers are generally more expensive than anhydrous or urea. In addition, custom applicators putting on nitrogen through a high-clearance machine can get backed up with customers — and if a summer rain occurs before the application, there's risk of compaction in the field.
That's not to say these practices aren't worth shooting for. It just means there is risk associated with trying something new and striving for the ideal management scenario.
Regional field editor Curt Arens and I are finding this out through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Testing Ag Performance Solutions (TAPS) sorghum competition. This is the second year of the program, and the first time the program is offering a sorghum competition in addition to the corn production competition. Focused on management decisions driving profitability and input use efficiency, the competition uses real-world figures for grain prices and input costs, and is carried out in an actual field at the West Central Research and Extension Center near North Platte.
At planting time, the sorghum competition asks contestants to submit a decision for starter fertilizer, with the option of inputting decisions for sidedress and fertigation treatments. However, factoring in the cost of making a sidedress application, the cost and amount of nitrogen that can be applied with each fertigation treatment, the amount of nitrogen that irrigated grain sorghum requires for top-end yields (most say 1 or 1.1 pounds of nitrogen per bushel yield goal), and the potential for heavy spring and summer rains, it becomes clear that saving all nitrogen applications for later in the season isn't always feasible — and the fact that the goal is profitability and efficiency.
Do you apply half of your nitrogen as a starter and half as a sidedress? Do you apply half as a sidedress and then split it the difference between three fertigation treatments? Or if you're taking a deficiency approach, do you hold off irrigating altogether and apply less nitrogen up front?
I won't give away the details of our strategy, but it was an eye-opening experience for both of us. As I mentioned to Curt in a recent phone call, we write about these decisions all the time, but it's not very often that we get to call the shots in these situations. Time will tell how our small slice of a sorghum field performs, but it's sure to be illuminating an experience — not only for those of us at Nebraska Farmer, but anyone who gets a kick out of a pair of journalists trying their hand at growing sorghum.