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Nitrogen too early loses its value

Farmers trying to avoid possible rising nitrogen costs by applying the fertilizer to fields before the new planting season may harm their wallets and the environment.

Most nitrogen applied to fields weeks before planting will be lost to the environment. Not only will it have to be re-applied, adding cost to the producer, but it can have negative effects on nearby water quality.

Larry Oldham, soil specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, is urging producers and their advisors to apply known science to the management of their fields — it is too early to apply nitrogen to spring-planted fields.

“It's a very risky enterprise to apply nitrogen several weeks before planting,” Oldham said. “When you have heavy rains after nitrogen has been applied, it may dissipate as a gas into the air from waterlogged soils. Some nitrogen may leach into the groundwater where it can have negative environmental consequences.”

Oldham said he heard reports of producers buying and applying the fertilizer in February in anticipation of rising fertilizer costs.

Natural gas is a major component of nitrogen fertilizer, and Oldham said manufacturing cutbacks, transportation, the national economy and the international situation are raising some concerns that natural gas, and therefore nitrogen, prices will rise dramatically as they did two years ago.

Nitrogen is applied as a fertilizer to corn, cotton and rice fields before planting. The best time to apply it is days before planting, not weeks.

“Folks who apply fertilizer now may have to do it all over again,” Oldham said. “The best management practice is to apply nitrogen as near planting time as possible, or in suitable split applications for a particular crop.”

Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.

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