ReachOut: Springing the Trap on Nitrogen Loss

ReachOut: Springing the Trap on Nitrogen Loss from United Farmers Cooperative on Vimeo.

Sometimes you just know you’re in a trap.

Your wife says, “Does this make me look fat?”  Your husband says, “What do you want for dinner?”  And you know that you’ve been ambushed.  You’re toast, so hang your head and accept the fate quickly coming your way.

Next time, for the love of Pete, spring the trap, friend, and spare yourself.  Ambush the ambush.

But I’m an agronomist, so of course I’m talking about your fields.

And there is very likely an ambush coming your way.  Recent warm temperatures and buckets upon buckets of rain have created textbook conditions for denitrification, an anaerobic process that converts nitrogen to gas, which is lost then to the atmosphere.  It happens quickly, and every pound of nitrogen lost takes a bushel per acre right along with it.  This is happening in your fields right now.


Here’s the trap: By the time you notice nitrogen deficiency in your fields, it’s already too late.  Again, you’re toast.

But you can spring this trap now, kind of poke it with a stick.  And if it snaps your stick…well, you’re out a stick, but you saved your leg, right?

Here’s how to save your leg: Invest $40 of nitrogen per acre now.  That $40 is the stick in this little metaphor.  So you’re out that $40.  But it could save you $150 per acre come harvest.  That $150 is the leg in this little metaphor.

The university will tell you to take that $40 and apply it to a test strip or two in your fields.  If it greens up in a few days, then you there have proof of a nitrogen deficiency and can follow up with additional applications to the rest of your field.  It’s a good idea.  Mostly.  I say instead, take that $40 and apply it to your whole field except a test strip or two.  If everything greens except that strip, then you’ve just addressed your nitrogen deficiency.  And probably 10 days earlier than you would have following the university’s recommendation.  Pat yourself on the back and have a steak for dinner.

Some of you—I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that without evidence of a nitrogen deficiency, how would you even know that you’re in a trap?  You’re thinking what if you invest that $40 and never, in fact, actually had a nitrogen deficiency to address?

Okay, Starsky.  Three ways you can obtain proof:
1) You can take a tissue sample and send it into the lab.  Results will take 3-4 days.
2) You can take soil sample.  A busy lab will take a week or so for results.
3) You can wait until your corn shows it.

The problem with all of these is that they take time, which equals nitrogen loss, which equals yield loss.  Another problem is that they will return results indicating some degree of nitrogen loss as the conditions right now support denitrification so well.

I respect your sense of scientific inquiry and economic cautiousness though and had you front and center in my mind as I made my recommendation above.  Though it may seem like applying another round of nitrogen now is simply shooting from the hip, it is at least well-thought and low-risk hip shooting:  You need only to restore 4 pounds of nitrogen per acre to break even on your investment.

Ensuring the robustness and vigor of your plants with a pre-emptive nitrogen application now will yield additional results later as healthy and extensive roots will later recover nitrogen leached deeper into the soil.

So the next time your wife or girlfriend walks into the room wearing something new, just let her know that she looks great.  And the next time your husband or boyfriend looks inquisitive about suppertime, just ask him what he would like to eat.  Spring the trap, friends.  Live happily ever after.