When in Rome

ReachOut: When In Rome from Central Valley Ag on Vimeo.

by Mike Zwingman

by Mike Zwingman

Friend, imagine any of your acres—your favorite, your least favorite, that one down by the trees where you found three deer last week—it doesn’t matter. Underneath that acre, in any given year, is probably about 1000 pounds of Nitrogen. Yep, 1000 pounds. Even under the crummy ones.

Very little of this 1000 pounds of Nitrogen is actually available to your plants, of course. Over the course of a year, probably only 80-100 pounds is actually available for use by your crops. That’s why we have to apply the 150-200+ pounds of additional Nitrogen that we do each year.

But that 900 pounds that sits unavailable per acre per year, that’s a 900 pound gorilla that we’ve got to pay some attention to.

Because some years, that 900 pound gorilla gets a bit generous and gives up some of itself. And other years, it’s stingy as all get out and turns us a cold, hairy shoulder.

2012 was one of its more generous years recently. We had a lot of sun, a lot of warmth, and we irrigated like champs—such conditions release a bit more Nitrogen to our plants than usual. 2009, on the other hand, was a miserly year: the soil stayed fairly cool throughout the season and our Nitrogen handout was smaller than usual.

Understanding, or at least taking into the account, the kind of year we’re having will help us to make our own applications of Nitrogen most effectively. We want the year, the biochemistry to bend to us. You’ve been at this gig long enough though to know that the year, the biochemistry doesn’t bend. We have to meet it.

Back when the land we farm today was native prairie, the Nitrogen cycle was in balance at all times because of the species mix in the ecosystem. Today, however, we enforce a monoculture upon this very same land, which throws the cycle out of whack. Then we dump manmade applications of Nitrogen onto a screwy cycle and expect that that’ll do. But it doesn’t.

The Nitrogen cycle is unwavering: it can’t be tricked, because it’s not trick-able. It can’t adapt to us, because it’s unadaptable. It just is. And it’ll take whatever we give it. But we might not like the outcome.

Unless we adapt to it. If we accept that the cycle is untrickable and unadaptable and begin working with it, we might actually like the outcome it hands us when we make a Nitrogen application. The keys to working with it start with understanding how the cycle differs depending on the conditions in any given year and making our own Nitrogen applications at a time and rate at which the system can accept them.CVA_0519.00_01_32_21.Still001

Doing so will increase our efficiency and reduce our risk of loss by increasing the likelihood that the Nitrogen we put down will be taken up by our plants.

When we apply at a rate the system can’t accept or at a time the system isn’t ready, we waste our application and endanger our water. When we apply at inappropriate rates and times, our application either becomes immobilized in the soil or gets lost into the groundwater, both unwanted outcomes of an application.

Practically, a simple way to mitigate this waste and danger is to split your Nitrogen applications. We don’t give cattle a whole season’s worth of feed on day one—we shouldn’t expect that we should be able to do it with our plants either.Blue-Box-e1409667504172

At the end of the day, we need to realize that we’re in Rome. When we’re out in your fields—that’s Rome and we need to do what the Romans do. Which is to say that we shouldn’t fight the cycles and systems at work in nature but should rather respect them, work with them, follow their lead. If we do, friends, we’re going to like what we see.