Bronc Finch Ph.D. student under the leadership of D.B. Arnall
Brian Arnall, Precision Nutrient Management Specialist.
A study conducted by Oklahoma State University, in cooperation with Noble Research Institute has had the opportunity to evaluate the nitrogen management of graze-out winter wheat over the past three years. This study was set up with three nitrogen management treatments of a 60 lb N pre-plant, 120 lb N pre-plant and a split application with 60 lbs N at pre-plant and 60 lbs N at spring top-dress applications. In the 2018-2019 season top-dress N was applied shortly after Feekes 6 stage (hollow-stem) due to rain and other conditions preventing timely top-dress. The 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 growing seasons received ideally timed top-dress applications in late February to early March. For this study the first cuttings were targeted for just before the appearance of first hollow stem, and second harvest was targeted at just prior to boot stage. The 2020-2021 growing season had much less growth at the time of top-dress than previous years due to a severe early spring freeze damage which resulted in only a harvest at boot.
Table 1. Rainfall totals for each year within each location. September 1 – January 1 represents the pre-vernalization grazing period, September 1 – January 1 represents the growing season total.
Crop production can be majorly impacted by the environment, and that is no different for a forage production system such as in this study. Table 1 shows the differences in rainfall totals for each growing season, and how much of that seasons total fell prior to January when hard freezing conditions typically occur. The 2018-2019 season saw at least 40% more rainfall than other years at both location. Much of this increase was in the fall and early winter which lead to a greater first harvest at both locations and greater soil moisture storage for after spring green-up. The environmental impacts continue to cause reduction in annual yields for the 2020-2021 season with a longer cool season and a late freeze (data not shown) which caused significant winter kill on what was a decent fall production.
Regardless of environmental impacts system improvements were observed with the management on N for wheat biomass production. Figure 1 shows the amount of biomass that can be attributed to the gain of a grazing animal, calculated as dry matter yield * net energy for gain. Gain-yield production reported substantial increases in total system production with the increase in N rate in comparison to a lower 60 lb per acre rate. When forage dry matter yields were near or above 5 tons, such as in 2018-2019 the split application of 60 lbs pre-plant and 60 lbs top dress significantly increased the yield and gain-yield, while lower yielding years only saw increases with increased rate. Overall system production improved with the increase of application and slight improvements were reported when application of N was closer to plant utilization.
Total N uptake of harvested biomass is documented in Figure 2 and follows a similar trend as total biomass yield. Total N uptake can be directly related to protein, as protein is total N * 6.25. As observed with the total biomass production, N uptake was reduced annually due to the reduction in available soil moisture and plant growth. The increase of rate increased overall system N uptake as well as increased annual N uptake. Split applications of N resulted in an increased N uptake in comparison to the same total rate applied as pre-plant for the entire system and in most individual years. Increasing the uptake of N not only leads to the increase in biomass and protein concentration but also allows for the more efficient usage of fertilizers. By utilizing as much fertilizer as possible allowing for increased root growth to mine N from the soil. These increases in yield production and nitrogen uptake improve the gain potential of the forage crop which leads to increases in return on investment for the producer.
Net returns can be calculated by multiplying gain by cattle price. Table 2 shows the 3-year Gain, Return, and Profit of the 120 pre and 60-60 split treatment. The dollar value of gain was set at $1.12 per pound as reported by Dr. Derrell Peel in the Cow-Calf Corner August 16, 2021 newsletter. Interestingly, the delay of the additional 60 lbs N until a top-dress application results in an average increase of $458 per acre over the 120-pre-plant rate. This increase in profit does take into account the extra application cost of top-dress. The rate used was $7.82 ac-1 per year: OSU Fact sheet “CR-230. This results in an increased cost of $23.46 over a three year time frame.
Table 2. Evaluation of Gain (dry matter yield * net energy for gain) in tons ac-1, Return (Gain * $1.12) in $ ac-1, Profit (Return minus fertilizer and application cost $241.03 for 120 and $264.49 for 60-60 split) and the Difference between the profit of 120 lbs of N applied preplant and the 60-60 split application.
As the winter wheat planting begins and decisions are being made, the management of nitrogen can be a very challenging one. From this data set, yield increased with the application of N above 60 lbs, as expected. While the decision to pre-plant or split apply can add an element of difficulty to the decision, the split application has been shown to be equal to or better than 100% pre-plant application. This study indicates the application of a split of N can be more profitable, than utilizing a pre-plant application of the same rate. Resulting in improved livestock gain-yield production, and system profitability. While the split application did not have a big payoff every year, taking advantage of it in the good years resulted in such a significant increase that split application resulted in a $458 per acre increase in profit across the two sites.
For questions or comments please feel free to reach out.
Acknowledgement of the support by Noble Research Institute for this project.