With the recent increase in fertilizer prices just prior to winter wheat planting season I felt it was a good opportunity to bring this older post back up and give it an update. Since the blog was originally written in 2013 there has been a lot of work done both to better understand the nitrogen fertilizer need / timing of winter wheat and efforts to updated and improve the algorithms behind the Sensor Based Nitrogen Rate Calculator.
The Nitrogen Rich Strip, or N-Rich Strip, is a technique/tool/process that I spend a great deal of time working with and talking about. It is one of the most simplistic forms of precision agriculture a producer can adopt. The concept of the N-Rich strip is to have an area in the field that has more nitrogen (N) than the rest. In recent years we have been utilizing Zero-N strips in corn. The approach to some may be new but at one point most producers have had N-Rich Strips in their fields, albeit accidentally. Before the days of auto-steer it was not uncommon, and honestly still is not, to see a area in the field that the fertilizer applicator either doubled up on or skipped. In our pastures and dual purpose/graze out wheat every spring we can see the tell-tale signs of livestock deposits. When over laps or “Cow Pox” become visible we can assume the rest of the field is behind in nitrogen. The goal of an N-Rich Strip is to let the field tell you when it needs more N. Research has shown wheat can be yellow and recover completely and it may even be a benefit. See the link for the Value of In-season Nitrogen at the end of this blog.
What I like most about the N-Rich Strip approach is its Simplicity. The N-Rich Strip is applied and; Scenario 1. The N-Rich Strip becomes visible (Greener) you APPLY NITROGEN, Scenario 2. The strip is not visible you Option A. DON’T APPLY NITROGEN Option B. Apply Nitrogen Anyways. The conclusion to apply N or not is based on the reasoning that the only difference between the N-Rich Strip and the area 10 ft from it is nitrogen, so if the strip is greener the rest of the field needs nitrogen. If there is no difference N is not limiting and our research shows N does not have to be applied. However producers who decide to be risk adverse (in terms of yield) can apply N but it would be advised to do so at a reduce the rate. Now is a good time to note that the N-Rich Strip alone provides a Yes or No, not rate recommendation. At OSU we use the GreenSeeker optical sensor and Sensor Based Nitrogen Rate Calculator (SBNRC) to determine the rate, but that discussion will come later. I equate the change from using yield goal N rate recs to the N-Rich Strip as to going from foam markers to light bars on a sprayer. Not 100% accurate but a great improvement.
Now that we have covered the WHY, lets get down to the nuts and bolts HOW, WHEN, WHERE.
How the strip is applied has more to do with convenience and availability than anything else but there are a few criteria I suggest be met. The strip should be at least 10 ft wide and 300 ft long. The rate should be 40 to 50 lbs N (above the rest of the field) for grain only wheat and canola, 80 lbs N for dual purpose wheat. The normal recommendation is that when applying pre-plant either have a second, higher rate programmed into the applicator or make a second pass over an area already fertilized. Many will choose to rent a pull type spreader with urea for a day, hitting each field.
Also popular are applicators made or adapted for this specific use. ATV sprayers are the most common as they can be multi-purpose. In most cases a 20-25 gallon tank with a 1 gpm pump is placed on the ATV with an 8-10ft breakover boom. The third applicator is a ride away sprayer with a boom running along the rear of the trailer. In all cases when liquid is the source I recommend some form of streamer nozzle.
If this all sounds like to much then the easiest application method might just be a push spreader. No need for trailer or even a truck. In most cases I recommend whichever N source is the easiest, cheapest, and most convenient to apply.
When the strip is applied in winter crops proper timing is regionally dependent. For the Central Great Plains, ideally the fertilizer should be applied pre-plant or soon after. However, in most cases as long as the fertilizer is down by December or even January everything works. Timing is more about how much the wheat is growing. If it is slow growing fall, timing can be delayed. When the N-Rich Strip approach is used on the Eastern Shore in Virginia and Maryland the strips have to be applied at green up. We have been trying this in Oklahoma and Kansas with good success. It is always important to make the tools fit your specific regional needs and practices and not the other way around.
Where is actually the biggest unknown. The basic answer is to place the N-Rich Strip in the area that best represents the field. Many people question this as it doesn’t account for spatial variability in the field, and they are correct. But my response is that in this case spatial variability is not the goal, temporal variability is. Keeping in mind the goal is to take a field which has been receiving a flat yield goal recommendation for the last 30+ years and make a better flat rate recommendation. My typically request is that on a field with significant variability either apply a strip long enough to cross the zones or apply smaller strips in each significant area. This allows for in-season decisions. I have seen some make the choice to ignore the variability in the field, made evident by the strip, and apply one rate and others choose the address the variability by applying two or more rates. One key to the placement of N-Rich Strips is record keeping. Either via notes or GPS, record the location of every strip. This allows for the strips to be easily located at non-response sites. It is also recommended to move the strip each year to avoid overloading the area with N.
For more information on N-Rich Strips