Last week, a grower came up to me after a presentation and asked me what the answer was.
I had, he pointed out, laid out our problems with Nitrogen, but offered little to do about them.
So let’s get back to everyone favorite topic with an eye toward action, and let’s just start at the beginning with the four Rs: timing, placement, source, and rate.
Do those seem out of order to you? Okay. That’s action step number one then: try thinking about them in this order instead.
Tomato, tomahto, right? Wrong. Our usual way of thinking about the four Rs is a problem. It denies the dynamism of each factor and their complex interplay. It also weights each factor equally, which actually encourages waste instead of efficiency. If we can change the order of the four Rs in our brains, we can change the way we think about them, particularly about rate, which needs to make an important jump from the first R we consider to the last.
While we’re tweaking our thinking, let’s make one more adjustment: when we think about rate, let’s stop thinking in pounds per acre and start thinking in pounds per bushel. It’s a change that will support our endeavor to treat our acres differently and improve our efficiency.
Because this is about efficiency. If we make the important move of considering timing, placement, and source before we consider rate, we can actually shrink our rate, which would be a main indicator that we are improving our efficiency.
Here’s the problem as is: we start a season with an expected yield, a number in mind while our fields are still brown and the journey to harvest is at its longest. When we consider rate first, we match it to that expected yield at that moment in time and plow ahead accordingly. But. Things change, right? The season is warmer or cooler, wetter or dryer, sunnier or cloudier, etc or etc than we expected and that expected yield number changes. But because we already applied our N at whatever rate we determined at the beginning of the season, we leave ourselves with only minimal opportunity to follow the changes of the season and we hamper our yield or waste our investment.
If instead we manage rate daily via the other three Rs and info we get from our crops, we can greatly improve our ability to maneuver as the season changes (surprisingly or not) and follow more closely our plants demand for N, thus minimizing both the chances of shorting our crop (hampering yield) or overapplying (wasting our investment).
How’s this work? First, think timing, then placement, then source, then rate:
Timing: Simply put, the more touches you get, the more efficiency you create as you can better meet the real time needs of your plants as conditions change. More touches means reduced loss as N isn’t left to the elements as long and we can use our knowledge of mineralization and Nitrogen use models to optimize timing, so that when you do put N out, it is used soon, soon after.
In a Nitrogen utopia, I’d be out in the fields every day applying N as necessary. In the real world, three or four applications completed at strategic times in the plant cycle is probably most efficient.
Placement: The closer you can get to the plant (without injuring it, of course), the better. You might have equipment limitations in this aspect, which is worth considering as it will help you select the best source.
Source: We’ve historically chosen our source out of convenience and economics. And it’s been okay, but we have the ability to move beyond any on-size-fits-all approach. Moving forward, we should choose our source given timing and placement. In this way, source becomes a tool instead of commodity. It becomes part of our strategy as we work to achieve high yields and low waste.
At an intellectual level, changing the way we think about and act on the four Rs acknowledges the reality of the dynamism and circularity of their interplay and effect on our crops. In practice, it extends our opportunity to affect change much further into the season. But perhaps you’re recognizing some constraint to going along: you don’t have the time or the labor or the equipment is wrong. If so, let us help. Let your cooperative fulfill their mission. Let us do what we do best and make use of our operational aptitude. We have the ability to relieve your constraint.
Which leaves nostalgia as the only constraint we can’t help you overcome. Change is tough, my friends, but when it is well-thought and scientifically-based and helpful to you (!), well, we call that progress.