From a variable cost input standpoint, N is your second biggest investment. It is also your investment most prone to losses and that’s a bit of a scary combination. Realizing the full benefit of your N investment is all about maximizing efficiency, which is easy enough to say, but more difficult to pull off. It requires careful management, a little art, a little science, and a certain touch.
The science: The first step in maximizing the efficiency of your N investment is mitigating losses. There are both chemical and physical forces at work in your fields and understanding their impact on the N you put into the soil will go a long way toward improving your efficiency. Chemically, bacteria in your soil are exerting external forces on your N that change its form and mobility. This is the basis of the nutrient cycle. Physically, the characteristics of your soil affect its cation exchange capacity (CEC). Multiplying this number by ten gives you an idea of how much ammonium your soil can hold at any one time. Having an understanding of both nutrient cycling in your fields as well as the CEC of your soil gives you an important window into the life of your N investment once you lay it in your fields.
Of course, the work we do is complex and there is more to consider as we endeavor to understand the life and times of our N. Crop demand is another important factor in this efficiency equation and crop demand is never linear. It is, in fact, highly nuanced and differs by hybrid. Using information from outside sources about the characteristics and habits of your particular hybrids is absolutely necessary to correctly factoring crop demand into your N equation.
If though you do understand nutrient cycling and your soil’s CEC, if you understand crop demand and hybrid differences, then you’re ahead of the curve in understanding N as it exists in your fields, which should lead you toward maximizing your N use and thus lowering the amount you use per bushel by about 10-15%.
The art: Once you understand something of the science behind N management, you’ve got to put the pencil to the paper, or the rubber to the road, or the shovel to the soil. You’ve got to jump in and see what goes.
So experiment in your fields with a few N stabilizing products to see how they play.
There’s no need to make a large-scale project out of this—save that for when you find the product and actions that really wow you. For now, devote just a few acres to your experiment and see how different products affect your crops and how that changes according to conditions, since who knows what May or June might bring.
To get started, try Nutrisphere to stabilize UAN and urea and N-Serve to stabilize anhydrous ammonia. Test them on a few acres. Test them with a 5-10% reduction in N. Test them with a 10-15% reduction. Play around. Dig around. Watch.
The reason: Friends, I understand if you’re thinking that that’s a lot of work for a 10-15% reduction in your total N investment. But that’s $7-10 per acre—a fair chunk of change, especially in our current economic climate. Perhaps more importantly though, N management of this sort is as much about mastery of our art as much as it is about reducing our costs. This is about being the best at what we do. This is about perfecting our practice. Because in doing so, we protect not only our bottom line, but our industry and environment for our future generations as well.