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Farm Manager's notebook: Time to change nitrogen strategies?

Farm Manager's notebook: Time to change nitrogen strategies?

Multiple nitrogen applications as late as possible for the plants' needs is the key

We lost a lot of nitrogen in our fields with record rains this summer, and it has me rethinking my fertilizer strategy for next year. I'm thinking about just putting a base rate of N on this fall with anhydrous, then another application at planting and yet another sidedress app next spring. Will this be more efficient? More expensive? — G.R., Missouri

For most of us in the Midwest growing No. 2 yellow corn, weather is an exogenous variable in that it controls over 50% of our production outcome. So we justifiably spend a lot of time and money trying to lessen the impact of unfavorable weather events.

Multiple nitrogen applications as late as possible for the plants' needs is the key

For nitrogen fertilizer, multiple applications applied as late as possible for plants' needs is the key to optimum N utilization as well as reducing the risk of yield curtailment. Most research shows that multiple applications as late as possible is the key to maximizing fertilizer utilization efficiency.

If you agree that these practices are ideal and that all deviations from doing so compromise something, then it's all about the trade-offs between less than maximum efficiency and the costs of doing what's most practical for your operation.

This means there will always be as much or more nitrogen when corn needs it if anhydrous goes on in the spring instead of the fall, but that fall application might still be preferred if that means hiring another man, buying another tractor, or negatively influencing planting.

This means applying starter at planting will always be as good or better for corn than not, all else equal. But that not applying starter might still be preferred if it complicates your planting logistics beyond your ability to manage them and risks negatively influencing planting.

Decreasing the yield inhibiting risk associated with each and every one of your inputs could be more important to your bottom line than absolute cost reductions. Balancing the potential yield reduction risk among all your inputs is paramount to your financial success.

Developing a nitrogen management plan >>


For our own continuous corn program, we prefer spring DAP or manure with Instinct, spring NH3 with N-Serve, starter with UAN, and UAN with Agrotain sidedress. The history of our soils holding on to fall-applied, stabilized anhydrous or spring preplant, incorporated UAN has not been highly probable, largely due to massive rain events in late May or early June.

Besides ground-truthing via scouting for prematurely torched lower leaves and viewing satellite field imagery, we fly our fields two to three times from late July through early September. All are efforts to determine when or if we run out of nitrogen for alternative soils, drainage systems and hybrids.

For our managed farms next year, we are proactively incorporating a three-year, comprehensive nitrogen management program as part of the lease. In year one, we will have strict adherence to the U.S. EPA rules and regs prohibiting fertilizer and manure applied on frozen ground or unincorporated before a rainfall event with potential runoff. Year two requires all nitrogen fertilizers to include a stabilizer, and year three restricts nitrogen application until the calendar year in which the crop is grown.

Our tenant response has been extremely positive.

Some of the sharpest consulting agronomists in Illinois will not even use anhydrous ammonia as a recommended nitrogen source. Though we respect this opinion, especially where UAN can be added to irrigation to "spoon-feed" corn, we utilize stabilized NH3 because we have witnessed too many cases of 100% stabilized urea or UAN disappearing by R2 to R4. Furthermore, it's hard to compete with anhydrous in our area on raw cost per unit of N.

More Farm Manager's Notebook
Is a CPA worth the cost?
Should we sell farmland?
What's our farm transition plan?
Reasonable cash rents ahead?

Jerry and Jason Moss operate Moss Family Farms Inc. Email

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