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Corn+Soybean Digest

A Winter Urea Story (With Apologies to Charles Dickens)

It had been 10 long years since Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge's fertilizer plant partner, had died. Ebenezer had bought out Marley's share of the business from Jacob's relatives and had run the plant ever since.

It was Dec. 1 and the weather in his part of North Dakota had dropped below zero every night for a week. The ground was hard and a couple of inches of new snow lay on the ground. More snow was in the forecast in a few days. Before closing, Ebenezer talked to his floater-driver, Bob Cratchet, about applying urea on his fields in the morning. He explained that urea prices were high, but likely would be higher in the spring and supplies might be tight. He might as well apply the urea now while they had more time. Anyway, nothing bad could happen. Could it?
It was too cold for the urea to volatilize.

As he drove into his lane, Ebenezer reached for the garage door opener and thought for a horrifying moment that he saw the face of Jacob where the button used to be. Blinking hard, he forced himself to look again and the face was gone. "No more sauerkraut at lunch for me," he thought out loud.

It was late when he arrived at home. You would think this time of year would be less busy, but end-of-the-year sales were important to next year's spring business and his farmer clients had money to spend before the end of the year.

He watched some TV, had some ice cream and started to get ready for bed.
Suddenly, a loud noise, such as the jangling of chains, came from the basement, if the house had one, which it didn't. Out of the closed door appeared the ghost of Jacob Marley trailing calendars, file cabinets and hundreds of soil thermometers!

"Woe is me and woe is you!" Jacob wailed. "I have suffered these 10 years past because I talked people into putting urea on frozen soil. Now I have this one chance to save you from my fate."

"Jacob, what are you talking about and what are you doing pulling all that garbage behind you?" asked Ebenezer, quite in awe and fear of this eerie spectacle.

"I talked our customers into applying ammonia and urea too early in the fall and putting urea on frozen soil," Jacob wailed. "I thought more about getting the order and getting the fertilizer orders out of the way than I did about the consequences. So I am doomed to forever be burdened with calendars, file cabinets full of NDSU Extension Service publications and soil thermometers that could have increased my customers' nitrogen efficiency! Things that I ignored in life! Woe is me! Now you are thinking about talking your customers into applying urea on frozen ground," Jacob continued. "To help you, I am summoning three spirits, starting tonight, to help you onto the right path. Expect the first when the clock tolls 1." Then he disappeared.

Ebenezer was stunned. He stood shaking and not believing what he just experienced. He went to the bathroom and took a shower. He looked all over the house, but finally decided he had dozed off after the ice cream and had a nightmare. He went to bed and, after much tossing and turning, fell asleep.

Suddenly he awakened to the sound of his alarm clock radio. He reached over to turn it off. To his surprise, it was 1 o'clock. He jumped out of bed and almost ran over what appeared to be an old farmer in bib overalls!

"Who are you?" Ebenezer asked. "I am the Ghost of Winters Past," the spirit replied. "Who's past?" Ebenezer asked. "North Dakota's past," said the spirit.
"Hold onto my arm and we'll take a little trip." Ebenezer held onto the spirit's arm and was whisked onto what appeared to be an NDSU Research Extension Center.

"Where are we?" Ebenezer asked. "We are at the Carrington REC in 1995," the sprit said. "It's late November and the soil is just frosted in the morning.
See? The researcher is applying urea to some of the plots. It will rain tomorrow and the rain will gently wash the urea into the soil. Watch now as time moves forward," the spirit added.

With that, day and night quickly whirled by before their eyes. When it stopped, they again saw the researcher out in the plots adding urea on areas in the plots with about 4 inches of snow. It was very cold.

"It is about three weeks later," the spirit said. "It's December now. The nights have been below zero for more than a week and the ground is very frozen. Now the researcher is applying urea to certain plots. Does this look familiar to you?"
asked the spirit.

Ebenezer didn't say anything, but thought to himself that it did look very familiar. In fact, he planned to do it again just as soon as he woke up from this stupid dream! Time again whirled by, with days and nights cycling like strobe lights at the fair. When they stopped, the snow was thicker and harder.

"It's a little warmer, though, so thank goodness for that," Ebenezer thought.
The researcher was again out in the field. "The snow is thicker, it's March and the ground hasn't thawed since it froze last December," the spirit said. "A person would have to be crazy to apply urea in snow this deep," Ebenezer said.
"Yes, he would," replied the spirit.

Time again passed by, but not as many cycles this time. When the cycles stopped, the researcher was nowhere to be seen. It was warmer and the snow was rapidly melting.

"Why are we stopping here?" asked Ebenezer. "Look at the water in the fields,"
explained the spirit. "See how the water pools on areas in the field? Look closely at how the water slowly trickles from the plots to ponds and even into the road ditch. The water is there because it slowly runs there during snowmelt.
The water cannot penetrate the frozen soil, so the water, along with any urea applied during the winter, easily runs off. The urea doesn't stay where it is applied and is free to move with the water."

"That's nonsense!" exclaimed Ebenezer. "Urea is attached to the soil and can't move. Besides, how can we get all of our work done in the spring if we have thousands of more acres to handle that we normally would apply in the winter?
Aren't we doing the farmer a favor by saving money on the cost of their urea?"

"I think someone hasn't been reading his NDSU Extension publications," the spirit said. "This study that we just witnessed will be finished a few weeks from now with a urea application made just prior to seeding wheat. The wheat was seeded and grown to maturity. When it was harvested, the wheat fertilized in November yielded similar to the April seeding application. Proteins also were similar. However, the two applications made on frozen ground made nearly 20 bushels per acre less grain and had almost two points less protein."

"I had no idea," Ebenezer said. "I must have been using my cell phone in the hallway at the Extension Service meeting I went to during that presentation! But I still need to get my work done and this is one way I can get it done!"

"So be it," the spirit said. With that, the scene went fuzzy and Ebenezer again found himself in bed in his room. "That was possibly the worst dream I have ever had," Ebenezer said to himself. He turned over and tried to go to sleep. Before he even got comfortable, the radio alarm went off again and he was confronted by a strange man in a tweed suit.

"Oh, ho!" the man shouted. "Time to get up! I am the Spirit of Winter Present."
"Can't I dream about something else?" Ebenezer cried. "I get enough winter present when I'm awake!"

"Oh ho, let's go out in the snow!" the spirit yelled.

With that, they were at the edge of town and Ebenezer recognized the house of Bob Cratchet. Bob was just coming up to the front door carrying a boy who looked to be about 9 years old and was holding a broken hockey stick. The door opened and Mrs. Cratchet stood looking at them with a concerned look on her face.

"What in the world are you doing carrying Tiny Jim?" she asked. "Well, mom, I was playing hockey and I think I sprained my ankle," Tiny Jim replied. "Dad says it's going to be OK, though."

"He took quite a spill and broke his stick at the same time," Bob added. "If the ankle isn't better by tomorrow, you might have to take him to the doctor. By the way, it looks like I might spread urea on my fields this weekend, so I probably will be working late."

"Do you think it's wise to spread urea on the snow and frozen ground? It's really expensive, you know," Mrs. Cratchet said. "It's OK," Bob said. "We do it every year for some customers. If Mr. Scrooge says it's OK, it must be. He goes to Extension meetings from time to time, so he must know what he's talking about. Besides, he said that supplies might be tight in the spring."

Ebenezer started to feel a little anxious about the urea and frozen snow idea.
Then he looked around and the Spirit of Winter Present was shrinking. "What's happening to you?" Ebenezer asked. "You don't expect winter present to last forever, do you?" the spirit squeaked as it slowly shrank into nothingness.

With that, Ebenezer was surrounded by a chill. Looking around, he saw a towering figure dressed in a black bomber hat and a black parka that looked like something out of an arctic nature show.

"Are you the Spirit of Winters Yet to Come?" Ebenezer asked. The spirit nodded and pointed at the Cratchet door. The spirit and Ebenezer walked through the door and stood in the kitchen where Bob and Mrs. Cratchet were sitting. It was late at night.

"We're really going to have to watch our expenses this coming year," Bob said.
"My wheat yields were at least 15 bushels less than the neighbor's and the elevator dockage because of low protein was a killer! The only thing I did differently than the neighbor was that he waited until spring to apply his urea.
I thought I was saving money."

"I never liked the idea of putting on fertilizer on frozen ground," Mrs.
Cratchet said. "I thought Mr. Scrooge had more sense than that." "Well it's done now," Bob said. "Tiny Jim wanted new hockey skates this year, but I think he'll have to settle for a hockey stick instead." "And I think I'll give you an Extension publication so you don't do anything stupid again!" Mrs. Cratchet said.

Ebenezer and the spirit floated out of the house into the yard. "Spirit, are these the things that will happen or the things that might happen?" Ebenezer asked the spirit. "I'll change! I won't ever talk my customers into putting urea on frozen soils ever again!"

With that, Ebenezer found himself in his room. He looked at the clock and it was
6 a.m., which meant it was time to get ready for work. He turned on the TV and saw that it was the next morning. Excitedly, he dressed and went to the fertilizer plant. He got there before Bob Cratchet.

When Bob walked in, Ebenezer shouted, "What are you doing here this morning?
Don't you know it's a Saturday in the winter? What could possibly bring you out this morning?" "But, I thought we were going to spread urea on my fields today,"

Bob stuttered. "Are you crazy?" Ebenezer shouted. "The ground is frozen! Where do you think the urea will go when the snow melts? Sideways, most likely, if it ever gets through the snow at all as cold as it is now. Here, look at this data from the NDSU Extension Service. It shows that winter urea application on frozen soils resulted in more than 20 bushels less wheat and almost 2 percent less protein, compared with a spring application. No, I'm not going to let you put urea on any of your fields until it's close to spring."

And Ebenezer was as good as his word. He purchased an extra floater and tender truck to handle the extra spring work. He had to raise his prices a little to pay for the extra steel, but people always said that he looked out for their interests and worked hard to make sure the fertilizer was applied as efficiently as possible.

And when people asked in the winter if putting some urea on the frozen ground was all right, he would point to a chart on the wall that showed how silly the idea was.

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