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In the past couple years significant efforts have been made to produce N fixing microorganisms that can be utilized in an agriculture system. The atmosphere is 78% N2 and prokaryotic microorganisms such as the bacteria species Azotobacter, Bacillus, Clostridium, and Klebsiella take that N2 gas and turn it into plant available NH4. These organisms have been around providing nitrogen for plants, for as long as there has been plants. In agriculture we have heavily utilized their relationship with legumes however have struggled bringing them into other realms of production. Naturally they tend to be found in areas that are very low levels of nitrogen. For example, prokaryotes were found in the un-fertilized check of the 130-year-old Magruder Plots but are not found any other treatment that receives fertilizer organic or commercial.
Now there are several products marketed as containing N fixing microorganisms suited for use in today’s corn, sorghum, and wheat production. While I have an active research program evaluating the use of such materials in Oklahoma, this blog will not address what works or how well. This blog will touch upon my thoughts on how to utilize a technology such as this if you pull the trigger to implement.
So there is one key to getting a ROI on products that create plant available nitrogen, and it’s a really simple key.
Under Apply Nitrogen
If you apply enough or more N than the crops needs, then there is ZERO value in a product that creates more N. For example, applying one of these products in your 250-bushel yield goal corn after you’ve already laid down 300 lbs of N preplant. Unless you lose it all to leaching, your probability of seeing a ROI on your biological investment is pretty poor. I have a hard time understanding the thought process behind paying for a N fixing product and not lowering your fertilizer rate. I can see one of two reasons. 1) You believe you historically under apply N and are losing yield because of such 2) Are in an environment which has a high potential of late season N losses, and you are unable to make recovery applications.
So what to do if using a N Fixer? I do not have the confidence yet to say, “Apply X product, it will produce Y lbs of N, so cut your rate by Y lbs”. That uncertainty is one of the greatest challenges, not knowing will I get 10 lbs or 40 lbs? If I did, then I would just subtract that off my planned rate. Side note, as someone who has been doing on farm N rate studies for a decade plus, I would have to add that most were likely over applying by that much and could cut back anyways. For me the use of the N Fixers should force your hand into utilizing in-season N applications, regardless the crop. So that you can better predict or determine impact of the product.
This is where the use of a refence strip (N-Rich or Zero N) is the golden ticket. We need a way to quickly evaluate the amount of N the crop has access to. The N-Rich method works best when preplant N is drawn way back. I would add that reduced pre-plant is a great scenario for N Fixers. The N-Rich in comparison to the rest of the field will provide you guidance towards your in-season goals. If the N-Fixers are doing a great job the N-Rich will not be showing up any time soon and you can make your N rate adjustments accordingly. If you are a Pre-plant or die kind of farmer, then I say you need to pull back the reins on the preplant rate but give the N Fixers some room to add value and add in your Zero N strips. These will again let you observe what is happening in the soil apart from your fertilizer. If it is getting on the late side of in-season N and you cannot find your zero, might be a good time to walk away and hang up the fertilizer applicator keys. I have lots of blogs and pubs on the use of reference strip so send me a note if you want to dive further into these approaches.
Feel free to reach out with questions or comments. B.email@example.com
Brian Arnall, Precision Nutrient Management Extension Specialist.
The basics for nitrogen (N) fertilizer rate determination can be described in a mechanistic approach by the Stanford Equation NFert = ( NCrop – NSoil ) / Neff. This equations states that the N fertilizer rate is equal to the amount of nitrogen taken up by the crop minus the amount of nitrogen supply by the soil, divided by the efficiency of the nitrogen fertilizer used. I outline the importance of this equation in the blog “Components of a variable rate nitrogen recommendations“.
There are nitrogen “Easy Buttons” which utilizes averages collected over diverse environments to create accurate N rate recommendations. The best example of this is the yield goal rules of thumb such as wheats 2.0 lbs N per yield goal bushel minus soil test nitrate. Yield goals are generally calculated as the average of the best 3 out of 5 years, or the 5-year average times 20%. Also, the 2.0 lbs of N is more than what is in a bushel as it also adds in an efficiency factor or a 0.5 lbs per bushel cushion. This method and others like it provide an accurate N rate with slight probability of yield loss. However, the rec is often highly imprecise. Meaning that if I apply the method to 100 fields the average will be spot on, however if I look at the performance of the recommendation on a single field, I will likely be disappointed.
When it comes to nitrogen recommendations the Easy button method will use components which help ensure that the rate prescribed will maximize yield 90-95% of the time. For example, take the data presented in Figure 2. Over fifteen years of the long-term winter wheat fertility study near Lahoma, Oklahoma the average pounds of N per bushel to reach economic optimum nitrogen rate (EONR) was 1.6, however if 2.0 of N was applied per bushel yield would have been maximized 13 out of the 15 years. While 2.0 lbs. of N per bushel would have been quite accurate for maximizing yield, it would be highly imprecise as over the 15 years optimum pounds of N per bushel ranged from 0.0 to 3.2.
The trick to improving your N rate recommendation closer to a precise and accurate system is to obtain representative site-specific values for the Stanford Equation NFert = (NCrop – NSoil) / Neff.
Looking at the 15-year long-term data above the yields range from a low of 27 to a high of 88 bushels. Of those 15 years, I personally planted multiple years, usually sometime in October, and many of those years while sowing I could have guessed a range of 55-60 bushel, which just happened to be just above the 15-year average. It was not until February and March when the yield potential really started to express itself. Why, well there is a lot of weather between Oct to March, a lot of environmental positive and negative impacts on that final grain yield. This is the best timing to go out with approaches, models, or techniques to estimate yield potential for N rate recs.
While I am a big fan of soil testing, pre-plant soil samples for N are just a snap shot in time. But the While I am a big fan of soil testing, pre-plant soil samples for N are just a snapshot in time, but the nitrogen cycle Figure 3, will roar on after the soil sample is collected. Organic matter (OM) is the central component of this cycle and drives availability of NH4 and NO3 in the system. For each 1% OM in the top 6″ of the soil there is approximately 1000 lbs of organically bound N. The amount of N going into and out of OM pool is driven by C:N ratio of residues, soil temperature and soil moisture. While we very well what the mechanisms of the cycle are and can model the reactions quite well. Our inability to predict long term weather patterns is the greatest factor limiting our ability to predict future availability of NSoil.
This is where the reader should be asking “how can we get better site specific data” and I begin the discussion on why I have been promoting the of the Sensor Based Nitrogen Rate Calculator (SBNRC) and N-Rich strip method.
Lets talk about how the approach follows Stanford’s mechanistic approach to N management. First the Yield Potential component of the SBNRC which is related to NCrop. In effect researchers have built models over the past two decades that can correlate the NDVI collected from a sensor, such as the GreenSeeker, with the crops biomass and chlorophyll content. If given the number of days the crop has been growing it is possible to use the NDVI collected from the crop as a tool to predict final grain yield. The closer the wheat gets to hollow stem, or the corn gets to tassel, the better the prediction. One reason is that we have allowed more “environmental influence” to happen. Dr. Bill Raun, a founder of the SBNRC concept kept great discussion and data sets on his NUE.OKSTATE.edu website. On the “NUE Website on YP” he provides information on how yield prediction work while on the “NUE Website YP Library” he has not listed every algorithm created, and the math behind them, but also a recipe book for how anyone can create their own algorithm. While there are a lot post sensing stresses that can bring down final grain yield, the models that have been built and continually improved, do quite a good job on predicting final grain yield in-season. Resulting a much more site specific value for NCrop. The blog”Sensing the N-Rich Strip and Using the SBNRC” goes into a further discussion of using the online SBNRC.
That now leaves NSoil, which I will argue is at least as important as NCrop. As weather so greatly influences the nitrogen cycle it would be nice to have a weather station on every field paired with a 0-4 ft soil description which could be incorporated into a model. Given those might be out of reach we have found the the use of a reference strip, high N or low N, really provides an site specific estimate the of nitrogen the crop has access to. If the high N reference (N-Rich) strip is showing up that means the remainder of the field is N deficient. This may be due to losses or lack of mineralization, either way more N is needed. If the N-Rich strip is not evident then the crop is finding enough N outside of the reference strip to support its current growth. This could be that residual N or mineralization is high, or it could mean that crop growth and therefore N demand is low. Having the N check strip in each field allows for a season long evaluation. We can use NDVI to characterize how big or little of a response we have to N. We call this the Response Index (RI). An RI of 1.8 means that we could increase yield by 80% if we add adequate N, if the RI is 1.05 then we are looking at a potential increase of 5%. I have a previous blog which goes into the application of the reference strip. “Nitrogen Rich Strips, a Reminder“
Finally we combine the two, YP and RI. By predicting the yield of the area out side the N-Rich strip we can determine environmental yield potential, YP0. Basically what can the field yield if nothing is added. We multiple YP0 by the RI to get the yield potential with added N, YPN. Then its as simple as N rate = (YPN – YP0 ) x N needed per bushel. So for example if YP0 is 40 bushel RI =2, then YPN is 80 bushel. I need to fertilize the additional 40 bushels of wheat and I can use the 2.0 N per bushel can come up with a top-dress rate of 80 lbs N per acre. We are now incorporating site specific in-season NCrop and NSoil data.
And just a reminder for those of you new to my blog, I have a lot of research documenting that it is not only OK, but often best if we wait on N application in wheat and other crops. Value of In-Season N blog.
Every step we take towards the easy button is often a step towards site specific imprecision due to the use of generalized terms or models. Depending on your goals this very well could be acceptable for your operation, but with nitrogen prices as volatile as they are, should we not be considering pushing the easy button to the side, for now. Let’s add a bit of site-specific data so that we can take advantage of the N the system may be giving us, or the yield we did not expect. Let the N-Rich Strip be that first step.
Relevant Peer Review Publications.
If you have any questions please feel free to contact me @ firstname.lastname@example.org
Based on a few recent text messages and emails I think it is time to revisit an older post about Corn and Sorghum injuries from pre-plant herbicides.
Direct link to the original post Recent Weather Causing Corn (and Sorghum) Injury From Pre-emerge Herbicides
Being educated in the realm of Soil Fertility at Oklahoma State University by the likes of Dr Gordon Johnson and Dr. Bill Raun, Brays Nutrient Mobility Concept and Mitscherlich’s Percent Sufficiency Concept are ingrained in my psyche. In class the concept of Build and Maintain for phosphorus fertilizer management was just briefly visited and not discussed as a viable option. For anyone in the corn belt, and some Okies, reading this that may seem unusual. But when I was in school on average in Oklahoma there was about 100-200 K acres of 100 120 bpa (bushel per acre) corn, 300-400 K acres of 40-50 bpa sorghum, and over 5 million acres of 20-30 bpa wheat. In a state with those average yields, replacing P removed by the crop was not a major concern.
But times are changing. There is more corn and soybean planted and the achievable yields of all crop are increasing. While the average winter wheat producer should not be worried about replacement rates of P there is a growing group of producers that should. This blog will discuss the scenarios in which sufficiency rates are best and those in which replacement should be considered. The OSU factsheet PSS-2266 goes in-depth on each of these methods.
Applying P based on sufficiency will increase soil test P levels in a low yielding environment. For example on a 20 bpa wheat field that starts out with a soil test P level of 0. Using the sufficiency recommendation each year the soil test value will reach 20 ppm (40 STP) in 20 years. A 30 bpa field would take 30 years. Yes that is a long time but the soil test value is increasing a little each year. The point of 20 ppm is important because at that level the crop is 95% sufficient, meaning if no P is added the crop will only reach 95% of the fields yield potential.
Using a mass balance approach we can determine at what point does the crop remove more than we can supply with in or near furrow starter fertilizer. Table 1 shows the values I am using for the discussion. The first column is just the average amount of P removed per bushel of grain, most of our grains fall in the .4 to .5 lbs P per bushel range. The second column is the soil test value at which P level is said to be at 90% sufficient. The reason this column is included is that the P2O5 reccomendation for this P level fits into the starter rate for all crops. The low high starter rates are the typical range of P2O5 that is delivered within the safe range (N based) and what I see as the common rates. These values may be above or below what you use.
Table 2 is pretty simple but it is the center point of this article. The one caveat I need to add is this assumes strip till or 2*2 / 3*2 is not being used. Table 2 is using the starter range and removal value to determine the yield level the starter can support. The first take on this table may provide some hint on why in a state with 5 million acres of wheat averaging 36 BPA the state soil fertility specialist didn’t focus on replacement rates. In fact for most for most the the wheat ground P application is higher than removal and P levels are slowly increasing. The big take home from this table should be is my yield level outside this window? If so do not immediately go out in crease your P rates but do take a close look at your system as a whole. Take a close look at your cropping system, not just one seasons but look at a three or four year cycle. Add up P applied and P removed, are you positive or negative net balance? If you are negative take a long hard look at your soil test over time. Some soils can supply a large amount of P even if you are removing more than you apply. Other soils will be rapidly drawn down. Regualr soil testing allows for producers to keep an eye on these values.
In the end even if the production warrants the use of replacement rates, the current market may not. For more on that read https://osunpk.com/2016/08/27/now-may-not-be-the-time-for-replacement/.
Speaking of market currently both soybeans and cotton are getting a lot of attention due to how the economics is penciling out. Soybean is a “heavy” P crop pulls .8 lbs per bpa while cotton removes 13 lbs per bales. Both of these crops are salt sensitive and the rate of inforrow is typically quite low providing only about 6 lbs when on 30″ rows. If you are growing beans or cotton make sure you account for their removal when you talley up your system.
Below is a table that I wanted to add, well because I like it. This table illustrates that buildup, and drawdown, rate is heavily impacted by existing soil test value. In short it takes a lot more fertilizer P to raise soil test p levels in a very low P testing field than it does when soil test P is closer to optimum, 19 lbs per 1 lb at STP of 10 and 5 lbs per lb when STP is 65. The exact rate changes by soil type and the same holds true to drawn down via crop removal.
Any questions or comments? Feel free to contact me at email@example.com