ReachOut: N is for Nitrogen

10.13.14 from Central Valley Ag on Vimeo.

Mike Zwingman

Mike Zwingman

Every once in a while, something keeps me up at night.  My mind gets going and it says, “Hey pal, know what you haven’t thought about in a while?  Monsters!”  Or, not really monsters, but other things.  Grown up fears, like nitrogen loss.

Yes, nitrogen loss keeps me awake some nights.  Of all the input decisions we make, the decisions we make about nitrogen carry the most risk.  There’s a reason that nitrogen is the second of Fred Below’s Seven Wonders: it and weather account for almost 50% of our yield capacity.  Additionally, it’s one of your top two variable input costs.  And that level of consequence coupled with that expense—that’s what makes your decisions about nitrogen matter very much indeed.

So friends, my question to you is this: How well do you manage that risk?  What, if anything, are you doing to maximize your nitrogen investment?  As I ask you these things, so must I ask myself these things.  What am I doing, what is our industry as a whole doing, to help you better manage that risk?  What are we doing to help you capitalize on your investment?  They are questions that make me think, even squirm at little.


And I hope that you feel the same because when we make a nitrogen decision, I don’t actually know if we fully understand all the risk in play.  We often make decisions, I think, based on convenience, or because that’s just the way we’ve always done things, or, especially as an industry, we’re scared of being wrong.

That last piece—fear of being wrong—is a bit philosophical.  After all, what does it mean to be wrong?  So we’ll come back to that in a second.  For now, let’s dig in to the major risk to our nitrogen applications: weather.

Weather plays a driving role in all of the pathways of nitrogen loss.  Denitrification, volatilization, and leaching are all affected by weather.  While we can’t ever eliminate the effects of weather on our investment, we can mitigate them with good timing, proper sourcing, and concise placement.

Timing is not quite everything here, but it’s close.  For example, some of us put down all of our N prior to planting, which leaves your investment sitting in your fields converting to nitrate, which is water soluble and subject to leaching, during our rainiest months.  The longer you sit in a barbershop, the more likely you are to get a haircut.  A better timed application delivers N to your crop when it is going to use it, limiting how long your N investment is exposed to the weather and lessening your risk for loss.

Precise timings of N applications also allow us to give our plants nitrogen in the form that they can make the most of, something that is especially important later in the season during grain fill.  Making ammonium available to your plants later in the year helps plants manage their flow of sugars and maximizes your yield.  Ammonium applied late season also supports stalk quality.  We tend to blame stalk quality on nitrogen deficiencies, but sometimes, it’s not actually a nitrogen deficiency but an ammonium deficiency that is the cause.  When only nitrates are available to the plant, it has to burn valuable sugars to convert them into a more useful form.

Lastly, timing allows us to adjust.  When we apply N in a timely manner, we gain the agility  to adjust the rate of N to crop condition and changing yield potential.

Now back to our philosophical question: What does it mean to be wrong?  Those of you who know me know that I absolutely hate being wrong.  Nothing bothers me more.  Which is perhaps why nitrogen sometimes plays a starring role in my nightmares.  Pinpointing the correct nitrogen rate in a given year with a given hybrid is tough work with not a lot of room for error.  If we make decisions that result in an underapplication of N, we potentially miss our yield goal.  If we make decisions that result in overapplication, we waste some of our investment and risk negative impacts on the environment.

Being wrong carries some consequence.  To be wrong is to waste whether that be N or potential yield.  So how do we avoid being wrong?  Well, that’s something that we’re working on.  We don’t exactly know the most economical rate of N application today, but discovering it is one of the things that the Advanced Cropping Systems team is working on through the RD program.  We’re using carefully calibrated algorithms to determine the right rate based on crop removal and crediting to account for things like residual N, organic matter, effects of the previous crop, etc.

Models (and apps!) already exist that account for different yield potentials of fields, variations in soil type, structure, and water infiltration levels.  They adjust for hybrid differences, planting dates, and plant populations and are all around very useful tools.  But they may not correct accurately for things like irrigation (which is very important in our part of the world) and other quirks of your operation.  Which is why we’re here to help.

Blue BoxOver the next year, we want to work to work with you to more carefully calibrate these existing models, and develop our own based on our research, to assist us and you in managing nitrogen uniquely according to CVA region.  We’re aiming to better understand how to use VRN to match the correct N rate to the yield potential of the field and to learn which incremental N rate gets the greatest economic response from your hybrids.

The economy demands that we create profit through efficiency; our long term reputation demands that we become better stewards of N—we at CVA will use technology and knowledge to help us meet these demands, and we would be honored to lead your operation into this new frontier.