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Managing N in a wet springManaging N in a wet spring

With this year's wet spring, if nitrogen was applied last fall or this spring before the last few weeks of rain, loss of N is likely.

May 10, 2016

5 Min Read

USDA NASS estimated 26% of Nebraska's corn acres had been planted as of May 2, well behind last year's pace of 45% and slightly behind the five-year average of 31%. The pace is undoubtedly being affected by the amount of precipitation across the state and the wet field conditions (Figures 1 and 2).

Planting may be in the front of everyone's mind, but don't to lose sight of nitrogen (N) management. With the extra moisture, water movement through the soil creates reason for concern. If N fertilizer was applied either last fall or this spring before the past few weeks of rains, potential loss of N is likely.


In the last two months (March and April) most areas across Nebraska have seen significantly more rainfall than long-term averages for the same period, causing many producers to wonder if their fields are at risk for nitrate leaching.

Estimating nitrate leaching risk across Nebraska
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln publishes an N modeling tool, Maize-N, that estimates corn N need and potential N losses based on historic and current weather data. Using real-time weather data as of May 1, 2016, simulation results of the Maize-N model suggest soils in most corn and soybean areas are likely very wet, with moisture content around field capacity. Some areas have been at this level for the past one to two weeks. As soil hardly retains water above field capacity, excess rainfall likely has drained down through the soil profile below soil rooting depth along with the nitrate in the soil water. In addition, nitrate that did not leach below the 3-4 foot depth is still at risk for further soil water movement, which could leach additional N beyond crop roots.

March-April 2016 NE precipitation

Figure 1. Precipitation in inches from March 5, to May 3, 2016. (Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center)


NE Oct-May precipitaiton 2016

Figure 2. Precipitation in inches from Oct. 1, 2015 to May 2, 2016. (Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center)

Assuming a silt clay loam soil texture and soil moisture around 70% of field capacity in the beginning of March, the Maize-N model estimated nitrate leaching at approximately 14% of the total nitrate remaining in mid-April 2016. The risk of nitrate leaching is relatively greater for northeast Nebraska, including Ord, West Point and O'Neill, as well as southwest Nebraska, including Holdrege, McCook, and North Platte. North Platte's risk of N leaching may be high this spring. For lighter soil textures the risk of nitrate leaching is greater while the opposite is true for heavier textures. For example, the average nitrate leaching was estimated to be 23% of total nitrate present in mid-April assuming sandy loam texture for all locations while the corresponding value was 9% for clay loam for all locations.

Because the soil in most fields has likely been fully recharged, further rainfall in the coming weeks will likely lead to more nitrate leaching.

Nitrogen management
Fortunately, several tools are available to assess the N status of your management system. The most rudimentary, but invaluable tool is the soil sample. It may be a lot of work, but taking composite soil samples at different depths (0-8, 8-24, and 24-48 inches) and having them analyzed for ammonium and nitrate, would give more confidence as to how much N is currently in the system, and where it is located. Is the bulk of the N in the lower depths? This should raise concerns for future losses.

Other tools available include chlorophyll meters, active crop canopy sensors, and aerial imagery. These tools all require a growing crop and work best after the V8 growth stage, just beyond the window of most tool bar sidedress options. These tools are accurate if calibrated, and require N-rich strips for comparison. Sensors have been shown to be an effective management strategy for varying N rate throughout the field via high clearance N applicator. (See UNL Project SENSE introduction and 2015 results.)


However, if sensors need to be used after the point you can sidedress, think about using the PSNT which is a 1-foot sample taken the first week of June. The parts per million of nitrate in this sample have been calibrated for Iowa, but not Nebraska. Consider how much N is currently in your system, and use the UNL N algorithm in Fertilizer Suggestions for Corn or use modeling tools like Maize-N to help estimate future N needs based on your field conditions.

Last but not least, some growers are set up to fertigate. Many shudder at the thought of putting more water on a field that is sopping wet, but later in the season, fertigation allows a grower to respond to potential deficiencies by delivering a timely application of N to the crop.

Of course, all of these methods still require continuous monitoring of your corn crop and its response to changing weather and field conditions. Nitrogen is a tricky nutrient and needs to be watched carefully to prevent losses to both your bottom line and the environment.

Source: UNL CropWatch

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