Home » Nitrogen
Category Archives: Nitrogen
This the recent rains across the dry wheat belt the N-Rich Strips are going to start showing up. Because I am re-posting ans older blog that walks users through the sensing process and inputting data in to SBNRC. But since post we have also release a iOS version of the Online Calculator. iOS N-Rate Calc
With the significant swing in temperature over the last few weeks many are chomping at the bit to get outside. The wheat is starting to respond to the good weather and N-Rich Strips are showing up around the state. Over the past week I have had several calls concerning the impact of the cold weather on the N-Rich Strips. Many of the fields either are still small due to limited days of warm weather and growth or may have a good deal of damage to the foliage. If the field of concern has only a little or no damage and the strip is visible, the time to go is NOW, but if you cannot see the strip and your field has tissue damage or is small, similar to the first two images, then you will need to wait a week or two for sensor based recommendations. Another situation fits with the third image, the field has freeze damage but the N-Rich Strip is also visible. In this case the predicted yield level would be reduced do to the dead tissue making the N rate recommendation a little off. I still however recommend using the sensor and online SBNRC (http://www.soiltesting.okstate.edu/SBNRC/SBNRC.php) to make or base top-dress N rate. Even if the recommendation is a little off it will still be much more accurate than just guessing. However you must look at the SBNRC and ensure that it makes agronomic sense, if it does not consult your county educator or myself. This is discussed in more detail in my earlier blog about freeze damage. Keep in mind no matter what, if you can see the N-Rich Strip, everything outside of the strip is suffering from nitrogen deficiency. Decisions and fertilizer applications need to be made soon, to maximize yield.
Regardless of whether or not the strip is visible you should be planning to sense with the GreenSeeker Handheld very soon. Remember the sensor has the ability to detect differences before your eyes can. To sense the N-Rich Strip and Farmer Practice the user should carry the sensor approximately 30 to 40 inches above the crop canopy while holding the sensor level over the crop. While you are walking the two area the trigger should be held the entire time. I recommend walking at minimum 100 paces for each. The average NDVI value seen on the screen will only stay on the screen for a few seconds. Therefore it is critical you have a method of recording the number for later use. The sensor has limited memory so it will time out is the trigger is held for an extended period of time. If you wish to collect more NDVI readings just do it in multiple trigger pulls recording each. Once you have the average NDVI for the N-Rich Strip and Farmer Practice you can go to the SBNRC site mentioned above to retrieve the N rate recommendation. Once in the calculator, for those in Oklahoma, choose the “within Oklahoma” option in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. This will allow the calculator to access the Oklahoma Mesonet to determine growing degree days. After the location is picked from the options you will need to enter Planting Date and Date Prior to Sensing. Additional information requested is the expected grain and fertilizer prices. While these inputs will provide some economic evaluations they will not impact recommended N rate.
Below is a YouTube video in which I describe how to use the GreenSeeker to collect NDVI readings, describe the data needed to complete the online calculator, and how to interrupt the calculators output.
A result of the 2016-17 winter wheat crop was a significant amount of discussion focused on protein levels. For two years running now, the protein levels have been low across the board. Low protein brings in a challenge to sell, could impact local basis, and even more concerning is that low protein is an indicator that nitrogen was limiting during grain fill. Therefore, the field maximum yield potential was not achieved. In this blog, we talk about what protein is, what can be done to maintain a good protein level, and what can be done to increase protein if desired.
First, the definition of protein is any of a class of nitrogenous organic compounds that consist of large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids and are an essential part of all living organisms, especially as structural components of body tissues such as muscle, hair, collagen, etc., and as enzymes and antibodies. Protein is also one of the many attributes that determines end-use quality and marketability of winter wheat. Sunup TV met with Dr. Carver in the baking and milling lab to create a great video discussing wheat quality impact on baking and milling.
We determine protein by measuring the percent of nitrogen in the grain and multiplying by a factor of 5.7. So if the grain has N % of 2.5, the protein content is 14.25. The amount of N in the grain is affected by many variables such as weather during grain fill, yield level, and N availability during grain fill. If weather is conducive to good grain fill and test weight is high, we will often see protein values dip. On the other hand when grain fill conditions are hot and dry and we have light test weight, wheat protein will be higher. Research has shown (Figures 1 and 2) that generally as yields increase protein levels decrease. Of course if N is limited during grain fill, the N available for the grain is reduced, and the plant is forced to get all grain N from re-immobilizing N in the leaf tissue.
Maintaining Protein, and yield.
Managing nitrogen to maintaining protein and maximizing yield comes down to making sure that N is available at critical growth periods. With wheat, the critical uptake stage is typically the time frame between hollow stem and soft dough. The two graphs below show nitrogen uptake in wheat and barley. If the same graph was made for dual purpose wheat, the upward swing would start sooner but would follow the same general trend.
When it comes to making sure N is available during this time of peak need, the only way we can do that is apply just before it is needed. This means split application. While putting all the nitrogen out pre-plant as anhydrous ammonia is the cheapest method, it is also the method that provides the lowest nitrogen use efficiency and is most likely to show deficiencies late in the season. One of the challenges with 100% preplant N application is that years with good yield potential coincide with years with good/high high rainfall, which means more nitrogen loss. Some interesting results from studies implemented in the 2016-17 cropping season showed the importance of nitrogen application timing. The study is determining how long nitrogen application can be delayed after the N-Rich strip becomes visible (https://osunpk.com/2013/09/19/nitrogen-rich-strips/). For the study, 90 lbs of N was applied on one of the treatments at planting When that plot became visibly greener or bigger than the rest, N application was triggered. After the 0 DAVD (Days after visual difference where the day had growing degree days >0), another treatment was applied every 7 growing days for 63 growing days. Each plot, excluding the zero N check, received 90 lbs as NH4NO3 (we use this to take the variable of volatilization out of the data). In all cases, 90 lbs applied in late January to early February was better than 90 lbs pre-plant. Keep in mind there was 0 N applied at planting for each DAVD application timing; yet, we still hit 50-80 bushel wheat with nothing but in-season N. This is the result of supplying the N when the plant needs it. I should add this is just one year of data, and every year is different. The study is being replicated again this year and will be highlighted at the Lahoma field day.
For dual-purpose wheat, the total amount of N expected for the forage production needs to be applied pre-plant. Oklahoma State recommends 30 lbs N for every 1,000 lbs of forage expected For grain-only wheat, there needs to be only 20 to 40 lbs of N available to the crop when planted (this includes residual N). The remaining N should be applied at green up or early spring. The only way to ensure that N is applied when the crop needs it is to utilize the N-Rich Strip method. Having a N-Rich strip in your field lets you know when the wheat needs more nitrogen and when it does not.
Two years testing the N-Rich Strip and Sensor based nitrogen rate calculator (SBNRC) from the Texas boarder to the Kansas boarder showed that the SBNRC on average reduced N but maintained yield and protein when compared to standard farmer practice (Table 1).
Some producers may plan to market high protein for a premium if available. Fortunately, there are opportunities to increase protein via management. While most of the strategies for increasing protein happen later in the growing season, some of the early decisions can be a significant contributing factor. Variety selection and keeping the plant healthy and free of competition (i.e., pest management) throughout the growing season are going to increase the opportunity to produce high protein wheat. After that, the equation goes back to Figures 3 and 4 and making sure the crop has access to nitrogen during peak periods, including grain fill. If you will note, the bottom two graphs of Figure 5 both show significant increases in protein on the later applications. For both locations, this was when N (90 lbs N ac-1) was applied after full flag leaf emergence. There has been a significant amount of work at OSU looking at late application of N stretching back into the 1990s http://nue.okstate.edu/Index_Publications/Foliar_N_Curt.pdf. The focus has been looking at timing, source, and rate. The take home of decades of work can be summarized as such. Yes, protein can be increased with late season application, but not always. Applying N at or after flowering has a significantly greater probability of increasing protein than a application at flag-leaf. Source of N has had little impact if managed properly (UAN, 28-0-0, has to be watered down so that it does not burn the plant). The rate of N does matter quite a bit. Most of the work suggests that for every pound of N applied, the percent grain protein could increase by .05%. So to increase protein from a 12.5% to 13.5%, it would require approximately 20 lbs of N per acre. My work has shown the same trend that a 20 lbs application at post-flowering had more consistent increases in protein than lower rates at the same time or similar rates applied at flag leaf.
This wheat season we are looking to improve our knowledge of management on protein content through multiple studies by continuing the evaluation of varieties and management practices.
If you have any questions for comments please feel free to contact me.
For the last few years I have been challenging people to “Think Out Side the Box” when applying fertilizer. One of these application methods is to use a grain drill to put Nitrogen fertilizer into the soil. Just the act of getting N into the soil will immediately decrease the opportunity for losses. While it seems crazy many picked up on the idea of using grain drills for N applicators. The first year of a two-year study looking at documenting the practice is in the books. With data coming in from three locations, utilizing two drill types (double disk conventional and single disk no-till), the results are quite promising. The biggest take home from year one was a 2 parter: 1) if conditions are conducive to nitrogen loss from urea volatilization, applying urea with a grain drill in the spring improved efficiency. Conversely if loss potential was low, there was no difference. 2) in some soil conditions the double disk drill could not close the furrow and this reduced the positive impact of using the drill. The two tables below show the impact application and environment on yield. Each of the treatments had 60 lbs of nitrogen (as Urea) applied per acre. At Chickasha the first application was made while it was fairly dry and then it rained, but the second application was made during a period in which there was no rain but a fairly significant dew each morning. This can be seen as the small effect volatilization played on the yields of the first application timing. At Lahoma, it was the early applications that had a higher risk of loss with no difference seen later.
With the results from the first year of the top-dressed drilled nitrogen studies in the books, the interest has been increasing. One question keeps popping up: for grain drills without a fertilizer box, what do we put our grain box on to apply fertilizer. At one point the number of inquires hit a critical mass and I sent out my crew to find grain drills and create calibration curves for DAP (18-46-0) and Urea (46-0-0). The crew did just that.
Now please consider what is presented below is a general calibration. Much like the chart on your grain drills, it will hopefully get you close but the best-case scenario is that each drill is calibrate prior to running. As request are made we will try to add more drills to this list.
To create the following charts the guys located several different makes of drills around the OSU experiment stations. They were instructed to choose setting based on the manufacture seed rate charts in the range of 60, 90, 120 etc. For each setting they caught a couple of row units for both Urea (46-0-0) and DAP (18-46-0). They caught each setting multiple times to get a good average.
If you look at the tables you can see the Landol 5211, Great Plains 1006NT, and International 5100 are fairly similar, with the John Deere 1560 being a little lower and the John Deere 450 significantly lower at the lower rates. To use the tables below, consider what kind of grain drill you have and choose to follow one of the drills listed or the average of all five. If you use the average value I would expect most to find they applied a bit more than planned. To make it even simpler, but less accurate, you can use the % wheat value. To do this for DAP take your target rate and divide by .88, this value is what you want to set your drill to. For example for a target rate of 100 lbs DAP per acre use the following formula: 100/.88 = 114. Choose the manufacturer recommended settings 114 lbs wheat seed per acre. If you are wanting to apply Urea take your target rate of urea and divide by 0.71.
Again, I cannot state this enough, this is a general guide, each drill even of the same manufacture and model will likely be different. The only way to be certain of the rate applied is to calibrate each drill individually.
Questions or comments please email me at email@example.com or call 405.744.1722
A common question most soil fertility specialist receive goes along the lines of “Where anhydrous ammonia has been one of the cheapest N formulations available, dry fertilizers can also be competitive. From a cost and effectiveness perspective, which is going to be the better deal this year?” This question was recently posed to Agronomist Fields Notes of The Wheat Farmer/Row Crop Farmer produced by Layton Ehmke. What follows is a more in depth version of the response I provide to Layton.
Unfortunately if all angles are considered this is not an easy answer as determining which nitrogen product is a multi-faceted issue.
First there is the easy aspect, N price. At the time of writing this the local quote at Two Rivers Link is
NH3: 82-0-0 $490 a ton / .30 $ lb N
Urea: 46-0-0 $340 a ton / .37 $ lb N
UAN: 28-0-0 $230 a ton / .41 $ lb N
So on the outside looking in at just the price per 100 pounds of N applied NH3 is $7.00 cheaper than Urea and $11.00 less than UAN.
However the second part of the equation is application cost. Looking at the custom rate for 2015-2016 provide in the OSU Current Report 205 which outlines Oklahoma Farm and Ranch Custom Rates. While these are higher than if the producer owns the equipment it is still a good estimate which accounts for time, service, and repair. The average NH3 application cost is $13.75 while spreading dry fertilizer is $5.41 per acre. The cost of running a sprayer is similar to sprMy Siteeader per acre. So if application and N cost is taken into account at 100 lbs N per acre NH3 is $1.34 cheaper. However the amount of N really impacts this last calculation at 50 lbs of N per acre urea is $4.84 per acre cheaper while at 200 lbs NH3 is $5.66 per acre cheaper.
The third consideration should be the efficiency of the fertilizer. I could and should right a blog solely on the efficiency of nitrogen fertilizer applications. However that is a big mud hole I do not quite have the time to get into. So what follows are a few general consideration. Spring applied urea on no-till will have a significantly higher potential for N loss, from urea volatilization, than NH3 knifed in. Surface applied urea not quickly incorporated in via rain or tillage (added cost) is easily subject to losses greater than 33%. While NH3 applied with proper soil moisture and good seal will have losses in the single digits. The losses from UAN is somewhere between Urea and NH3 as only 50% of the N in UAN is urea. Also method (steamer/flat fan), percent canopy coverage, residue level, and weather will play a part. However is all in is applied pre-plant and NH3 but urea or UAN is applied in season there may be more losses from NH3. The loss of N should be taken into account and added to the cost of N. Lost in could be estimated in two ways, the cost of replacing lost N or the cost of lost yield. To figure replacement take the pounds of N needed (100 lbs) divide by the efficiency, in this case lets say you will lose 20% so 100/.8 = 125. So to get 100 lbs of N to the crop you much apply 125, which increased total N cost to $46.25 per acre. On the flip side if you lose 20% of 100 lbs and needed all 100 lbs of N then you stand to lose (20 lbs N / 2 lbs N per bushel) 10 bushel at $4.00 per bushel.
The final consideration is the ease and or efficiency of use. Some will choose a high priced product because they would prefer not to work with NH3 due to its challenging properties. The ease of use is also where the liquids (UAN) shine. On sight storage of UAN requires the least amount of infrastructure and transport is fairly easy.
The application cost of liquid is nearly the same as dry so considering the prices above 100 lbs of N as UAN will cost $4.00 per acre more. However a 100’ sprayer can cover approximately 30 acres per hour more than a spreader with a 60’ swath (Iowa State Pub). Below is a table that provides a few common applicator widths and speeds. If you consider the average NH3 rig will run 6 mph while spinners commonly run at 12 mph, you can cover significantly more ground with urea. Add to the equation a big sprayer and flat long field and applicators can covers a lot of ground quickly with UAN. So if time is of the essences it makes perfect sense to spend more per pound of N to get it on faster.
In the end the right source often comes down to the specific situation, time, and personal preferences. If you take all of the variables into account, you will be making best decision possible based upon the information available.
If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me.
Precision Nutrient Management
After discussions with producers in southern Kansas I felt the need to bring back this past blog. It seems that much of (not all) the early planted wheat lost a significant amount of biomass during the winter and the N-Rich Strip GreenSeeker approach is producing what looks to be low yield potentials and N-Rate recommendations. This should be treated much like we do grazed wheat and the planting date should be adjusted, see below. It is also important to note that in the past year a new wheat calculator was added to the NUE Site. http://nue.okstate.edu/SBNRC/mesonet.php. Number 1 is the original OSU SBNRC but the #2 is calculator produced by a KSU/OSU cooperative project. This is the SBNRC I recommend for use in Kansas and much of the norther tier of counties in OK.
Original Blog on Freeze Damage and the GreenSeeker.
Dr. Jeff Edwards “OSUWheat” wrote about winter wheat freeze injury in a receive blog on World of Wheat, http://osuwheat.com/2013/12/19/freeze-injury/. As Dr. Edwards notes injury at this stage rarely impact yield, therefore the fertility requirements of the crop has not significantly changed. What will be impacted is how the N-Rich Strip and GreenSeeker™ sensor will be used. This not suggesting abandoning the technology in fact time has shown it can be just as accurate after tissue damage. It should be noted GreenSeeker™ NDVI readings should not be collected on a field that has recently been damaged.
A producer using the N-Rich Strip, GreenSeeker™, Sensor Based N-Rate Calculator approach on a field with freeze damage will need to consider a few points. First there need to be a recovery period after significant tissue damage; this may be one to two weeks of good growth. Sense areas that have had the same degree of damage as elevation and landscape position often impacts the level of damage. It would be misleading to sense a area in the N-Rich strip that was not significantly damaged but an area in the Farmer Practice that took a great deal of tissue loss.
Finally we must consider how the SBNRC, available online at http://nue.okstate.edu/SBNRC/mesonet.php, works. The calculator uses NDVI to estimate wheat biomass, which is directly related to grain yield. This predicted grain yield is then used to calculate nitrogen (N) rate. So if biomass is reduced, yield potential is reduced and N rate reduced. The same issue is seen in dual purpose whet production. So the approach that I recommend for the dual purpose guys is the same that I will recommend for those who experienced significant freeze damage. This should not be used for wheat with just minimal tip burn.
To account for the loss of biomass, but not yield, planting date needs to be adjusted to “trick” the calculator into thinking the crop is younger and has greater potential. Planting date should be move forward 7 or 14 days dependent For example the first screen shot shows what the SBNRC would recommend using the real planting date. In this case the potential yield is significantly underestimated.
The second and third screen shots show the impact of moving the planting date forward by 7 and 14 days respectively. Note the increase in yield potential, which is the agronomically correct potential for field considering soil and plant condition, and increase in recommended N-rate recommendation. Adjust the planting date, within the 7 to 14 day window, so that the yield potential YPN is at a level suitable to the field the yield condition and environment. The number of days adjusted is related to the size and amount of loss. The larger the wheat and or greater the biomass loss the further forward the planting date should be moved. In the example below YPN goes from 37 bu ac on the true planting date to 45 bu ac with a 14 day correction. The N-rate changes from 31 lbs to 38 lbs, this change may not be as much as you might expect. That is because YP0, yield without additional N, also increases from 26 to 32 bushel.
This adjustment is only to be made when tissue has been lost or removed, not when you disagree with the yield potential. If you have any questions about N-Rich Strips, the GreenSeeker™, or the online SBNRC please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 405.744.1722.
I recently wrote a article for the Crops and Soils magazine on the components of a Variable Rate Nitrogen Recommendation. The people at the American Society of Agronomy headquarters were kind enough to make it open access. What follows in this blog is just a highlight reel. For the full article visit https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/cns/articles/49/6/24
Components of a variable rate nitrogen recommendation
Variable-rate nitrogen management (VRN) is a fairly hot topic right now. The outcome of VRN promises improved efficiencies, economics, yields, and environmental sustainability. As the scientific community learns more about the crop’s response to fertilizer nitrogen and the soil’s ability to provide nitrogen, the complexity of providing VRN recommendations, which both maximize profitability and minimize environmental risk, becomes more evident.
The components of nitrogen fertilizer recommendations are the same whether it is for a field flat rate or a variable-rate map. The basis for all N recommendations can be traced back to the Stanford equation (Stanford, 1973). At first glance, the Stanford equation is very basic and fairly elegant with only three variables in the equation.
Historically, this was accomplished on a field level through yield goal estimates and soil test nitrate values. The generalized conversions such as 1.2 lb N/bu of corn and 2.0 lb N/bu of winter wheat took account for Ncrop and efert to simplify the process.
The basis for Ncrop is grain yield × grain N concentration. As grain N is fairly consistent, the goal of VRN methods is to identify grain yield. This is achieved through yield monitor data, remote sensing and crop models.
The N provided by, or in some cases removed by, the soil is dynamic and often weather dependent. Kindred et al. (2014) documented the amount of N supplied by the soil varied spatially by 107, 67, and 54 lb/ac across three studies. Much of the soil N concentration is controlled by OM. For every 1% OM in the top 6 inches of the soil profile, there is approximately 1,000 lb N/ac.
Historically, the efficiency at which N fertilizer is utilized was integrated into N recommendations and not provided as an input option, e.g., the general conversion factor for corn of 1.2 lb N/bu. Nitrogen concentration in corn grain ranges from 1.23–1.46% with an average of 1.31% (Heckman et al., 2003) or 0.73 lb N/bu. Therefore, the 1.2-lb value is assuming a 60% fertilizer use efficiency. More recently, recommendations have been to incorporate application method or timing factors in attempt to account for efficiencies.
While a VRN strategy that works across all regions, landscapes, and cropping systems has yet to be developed, the process of nitrogen management has greatly improved and is evolving almost daily. Those methods that are capable of determining the three inputs of the Stanford equation while incorporating regional specificity will capture the greatest level of accuracy and precision. Ferguson et al. (2002) suggested that improved recommendation algorithms may often need to be combined with methods (such as remote sensing) to detect crop N status at early, critical growth stages followed by carefully timed, spatially adjusted supplemental fertilization to achieve optimum N use efficiency. As information and data are gathered and incorporated and data-processing systems improve in both capacity and speed, the likelihood of significantly increasing nitrogen use efficiency for the benefit of the society and industry improves. The goal of all practitioners is to improve upon the efficiencies and economics of the system, and this should be kept in mind as new techniques and methods are evaluated. This improvement can be as small as a few percentages
This article is published in the Crops and Soils Magazine doi:10.2134/cs2016-49-0609. The full article includes more details on the components plus concepts of integration.
Published in Progressive Forage http://www.progressiveforage.com/ 9.1.2016
First, let’s agree the term “precision” is relative. Forage is a diverse system with an even more diverse set of management strategies. Regardless, every manager should be constantly striving to improve the precision in which nutrients are managed. The ultimate goal of any precision nutrient management tool should be this: producing the highest quality output (in this case forage) with the least amount of input – ultimately, optimizing efficiencies and maximizing profits. Within this readership there are those who are soil sampling at a 1-acre resolution and others who have likely not pulled a soil sample in the past decade. For both spectrums we can make improvements – let’s start basic and move forward.
A soil sample should the basis for all nutrient management decisions. Is soil testing a perfected science? No, far from it. However, there must be a starting point. A soil sample is that first bit of information we can start with and the basic data collection for precision ag to make improved management decisions. When fertilizer is applied without a recent soil sample, it is done based upon pure guesswork. How many other management decisions are made on a farm or ranch by a guess?
The composite soil sample is a great start, but it is just that – a start. While there are some soils that are very uniform most are extremely variable. In a survey of 178 fields in the southern Great Plains on average the soil pH was 6.12; phosphorus (Mehlich 3 phosphorus [M3P] and Bray 1 phosphorus [B1P]) was 28 ppm while soil test potassium averaged 196 ppm. So on the average the primary components of soil fertility were okay. However, on average the 178 fields had a range in soil pH of 1.8 units, M3P and B1P both had range of a 52 ppm and STK had a range of 180 ppm.
Table 1 shows the minimum and maximum soil test values for the 178 fields.
This data helps support the concept that we should find ways to increase the resolution or decrease the number of acres represented by a single soil sample. Increasing soil sample resolution is typically done using one or two methods – zone or by grid.
The basis of a zone sample is creating a smaller field. The biggest question with zones is how to draw the lines. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of possible methods, each having their own reasons and benefits. My basic recommendation is that before lines are drawn goals have to be established. For example, if phosphorus or soil pH management is important, the basis for the lines should be soil based. This could be based on soils map, soil texture, slope and on and on. If the target is improved nitrogen management, then the reason for drawing lines should be yield based. This could be based on yield maps, aerial images, historic knowledge or many soil parameters.
Why does it matter? Two reasons: First, across the broad spectrum of soils and environments two nutrients are hardly spatially correlated, which means the zone that is best at describing phosphorus variability does an extremely poor job describing potassium variability. Second, more theoretically the demand for nutrients are driven by different factors. Phosphorus (a soil immobile nutrient) fertilizer need is driven by the soil P concentration (look up Brays Sufficiency Concept). Many use yield as a parameter for phosphorus application, but this is not a plant need or even a yield maximizing practice. Fertilizing based on removal is done to prevent nutrient mining. However, nitrogen (a nutrient mobile in the soil) fertilizer need is based on yield and crop removal. Hence, the common Land Grant University N and sulfur recommendations are yield goal based.
To be honest even the experts disagree on the hows, whys and ifs of grid sampling. I like data, therefore I naturally lean towards grid sampling if the field warrants it. For me, the biggest benefit of grid over zone sampling is that soils data from zone samples are biased to whatever parameter was set for the zone and therefore any resulting map for all nutrients must reflect the original zones. In a grid, each data point is independent therefore the maps of each nutrient can be independent, and (the science tells us) in most cases nutrients are independent of each other.
Ideally two pieces of information are available for determining whether a field is grid sampled or not. The first piece of information is a yield map from any previous crop. If yield is fairly uniform, I question the need for variable rate management, much less the expense of grid sampling. Regardless of the sampling method zone or grid, the discussion is moot if spatial variability does not exist across the field. However, many forage producers may not have access to this kind of data.
One of the most useful decision aid tools for grid sampling is the composite soil sample. The reason is simple statistics: A composite sample should be a representative average of the field. If the data is normally distributed, that means half of the field is above and half the field is below the sample average. So the optimum fields to grid are those in which an input falls at the point in which the benefit of applying is in question, because it suggests that approximately half the field needs the inputs while the other half likely does not. It is in this scenario that the return on investment can be greatest. As with pH, for example, fields with a very low value should have a flat broadcast application and should be sampled again at a later date. Fields with a composite pH well above 6.0 will unlikely have enough acres needing lime to warrant sending out an applicator.
Is grid sampling a lifelong activity? No. The initial activity of grid sampling will provide both an indicator of the variability level and overall needs of the field. From that point, decisions can be made and actions taken. Identify the greatest limiting factor in the field based on the samples, and focus on impacting change upon it. Zone sampling in subsequent years can be utilized to document change. When that issue is resolved, move to the next factor. It may require grid sampling again or using the original grid to develop new management zones. For instance, if the greatest issue first identified on the field is soil acidity then after the soil pH is neutralized the field should be grid sampled again. The reason is for this is that changing soil pH will influence many nutrients and the amount of change is not consistent but dependent upon many other factors.
In precision ag we tend to look at layers, yield, soil, etc. However, none of these tell the whole story independently. An area in a field may have moderate soil fertility and be under producing. Using the data collected the decision may be made to increase inputs; yet, the issue is a shallow restrictive layer limiting production. Therefore, the extra inputs will be of no benefit and could even further reduce production. It is at this point I like to bring out the importance of “getting dirty.” There is no technology that can take the place of “boots on the ground” agronomy.
For producers who have historically preformed intensive soil sampling there is still room for improvement. Soil testing and nutrient management is not an exact science; in fact, it was originally built for broad sweeping, statewide recommendations. As technology advances and inputs can be applied at sub-acre resolutions, all of the environment (weather, soil) by genotype inactions becomes more evident.
The next step in precision ag is to develop recommendations by upon site specific crop responses. This is where nutrient response strips can further improve nutrient use efficiencies and crop production. In Oklahoma, nitrogen-rich strips are applied across fields (grain and forage) to determine in-season nitrogen needs. Having a strip in the field with 50 to 100 extra units of N acts as a management tool which takes into account soil, environment and plant need. If the strip is visible the field or zone needs more N, if it is not visible then the crop is not deficient and at that point in the season does not need more N. Producers have taken this approach for N and adopted it for P and K with strips across the field with a zero and high rate of either nutrient. After a few seasons, responsive and non-responsive zones are developed and P and K applications are managed accordingly.
One misconception of precision ag is that the end result should be a field with uniform yield from one corner to the other. This is often not the case; in fact, in many cases the variability in production across the field can be increased. Theoretically, precision ag is applying inputs at the right rate in the right place. This means areas of the field which are yield limited due to underlying factors which cannot be managed have a reduction in inputs with no effect on yield. Other areas of the field have not been managed for maximum production therefore an increase inputs result in increasing yield widening the gap between the low and high yield levels.
Regardless of where a producer currently sets on the technology curve, there are potential ways to increase productivity and efficiency. There is nothing wrong with taking baby steps; it is often the simple things that lead to the greatest return.