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Since 2008 I have served as the Precision Nutrient Management Extension Specialist for Oklahoma State University. I work in Wheat, Corn, Sorghum, Cotton, Soybean, Canola, Sweet Sorghum, Sesame, Pasture/Hay. My work focuses on providing information and tools to producers that will lead to improved nutrient management practices and increased profitability of Oklahoma production agriculture

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Nitrogen source selection, the dollars and cents.

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.

WAKO NH3 applicator used for in-season application.

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.

High clearance sprayer out fitted with streamer bars for UAN application and GreenSeeker RT-200 optical sensors for on the go variable rate nitrogen application.

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.

Acres covered per hour based on width and speed. High speed not applicable for NH3 application.

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.
Brian Arnall
Precision Nutrient Management

2015-16 Wheat Crop Nitrogen Review

From trials to phone calls (and text messages, and tweets, and ect. ect) I have gathered a fairly good picture of this years winter wheat nitrogen story.  And as normal, nothing was normal.  Overall I seen/heard three distinct trends 1) Did not take much to make a lot 2) took a ton to make a lot 3) saw a response (N-rich strip or cow-pow) but fertilizer never kicked in. Covers most of the options, doesn’t it.


The N-rich strips really came out over all very good this year.  N-Rich Strip Blog. On average many of those using the N-Rich Strip and SBNRC (SBNRC Blog) producers have been getting in the neighborhood of 1.0-1.3 lbs of N applied per bushel produced.  This year the numbers ran from 0.66 to 2.3 lbs of N per bushel.  In both extremes I believe it can be explained via the field history and the N-Cycle.


Nitrogen Cycle Pete’s Sheet

In at least two fields, documented with calibrated yield monitors, the N-Rich Strip and SBNRC lead to massive yields on limited N. One quarter of IBA bumped 86 bpa average on 47 lbs of N while a second quarter, also IBA, managed 94 bpa average on about 52 units of N. We are currently running grain samples from these fields to look protein levels.

The other side of the boat were those with N-Rich strip calling for +2.0 lbs N per bushel.  I had received notes from producers without N-rich strips saying that they could predict yield based on the amount of N applied and it was a 2 to 1 ratio.  Not always but many of these high N demand fields where wheat following a summer or double crop or corn or sorghum. While many of the low N demand fields were wheat after wheat or wheat after canola. In a rotational study that had been first implemented in the 2014-15 crop year I saw big differences due to previous crop.  The picture below was taken in early March.  The straw residue in wheat after wheat had just sucked up the nitrogen.  While it was evident the residue from the canola broke down at a much more rapid pace releasing any and all residual nutrients early.


The yield differences were striking. The canola rotation benefited the un-fertilized plots by 22 bpa and even with 90 lbs of N applied having canola in the rotation increased yields by 12 bpa.  We are looking and grain quality and residual soil sample now. I am sure there will be a more indepth blog to follow.

Canola Wheat Rotation study year two yield average. yields average across previous years N-rates.

Canola Wheat Rotation study year two yield average. yields average across previous years N-rates.

Another BIG story from the 2015-16 wheat crop was the lack of benefit from any N applied pre-plant. It really took top-dress N this year to make a crop.  Due to our wet early fall and prolong cold winter N applied pre was either lost or tied up late.  Work by Dr. Ruans Soil Fertility Program really documented the lack luster pre-plant N effect. The figure below shows 4 location of a rate by timing student.  The number at the bottom of each graph is a rate by time (30/0 means 30 lbs Pre-0 lbs Top, 60/30 means 60 lbs Pre-30 lbs Top).  At every single location 0/60 beat 60/0. Top-dress N was better than Pre-plant N.


Figure 1. Work from Ethan Driver and Dr. Bill Raun. Study looked at rate and timing of N fertilization in wheat. Treatments are ordered by total N applied.

The last observation was lack of response from applied N even though the crop was deficient.  Seen this in both the NE and NW corners.  I would hazard with most of the circumstance it was due to a tie up of applied N by the previous crops residue.  The length at which the winter stretched into spring residue break down was also delayed.

Take Home 

Here it is folks APPLY NITROGEN RICH STRIPS.  Just do it, 18 years of research preformed in Oklahoma on winter wheat says it works. Hold off on heavy pre-plant N even if anhydrous is cheap.  It does matter how cheap it is if it doesn’t make it to the crop.  Will we see another year like 2015-16, do not know and not willing to place money on either side. What we do know is in Oklahoma split applying nitrogen allows you to take weather into account and the N-Rich strip pays dividends.

There are several fact sheets available on top-dressing N and the application of N-Rich strips.  Contact your local Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service county educator to get a copy and see if they have a GreenSeeker sensor on hand.

Herbicide and UAN tank mixed for top-dress

Spring is the time that many wheat producers apply herbicide and nitrogen (N) fertilizer.  For many this can be accomplished in a single pass by tank mixing the herbicide and UAN. In most cases this is an effective practice which eliminates one pass over the field.  There are some scenarios in which this practice is ill advised. One such scenario is high temperatures which would lead to excessive leaf burn and crop damage. The other scenario is no-till and that will be the focus of this article. Ruling out warm temperature tank mixing herbicides and nitrogen, assuming the herbicide can be tank mixed, is a good practice.  No-till on the other hand can be a different issue.

No till drill and ammonia oxide application

Situations with a lot of residue and smaller wheat is common during top-dress.

The problem in no-till comes from the liquid application method needed to apply herbicides, flat flan. To get a good kill with the herbicide the spray pattern needs to have good coverage, i.e a lot of small droplets to ensure maximum surface area impacted.  Unfortunately there are four primary fates of UAN  when applied via flat fan nozzles.  The UAN could be taken directly up into the wheat plant via absorption through the leaves, the UAN could reach the soil and go into the soil solution or absorbed onto the soil itself, the UAN can be taken up by weeds, or the UAN droplet may hit dead plant tissue and be adsorbed into the residue.


UAN applied with a flat fan will hit a growing plant, the soil, or residue.

The fourth fate of UAN presented is what can make the tank mix less efficient than a two pass system.  In a no-till system any UAN that hits residue should be counted as lost, for the short term. The decision to go with a one pass or two pass system can be aided by evaluating the amount of canopy coverage.  For example if the no-till field has 50% canopy coverage then one could estimate 50% of the UAN applied via a one pass system would be tied up in the residue.  The cost of a second application could then be compared to the lost N.  If 15 gallon of 28-0-0 was being applied then approximately 22.5 lbs of N would be tied up by the straw. At a price of $0.40 per lb on N, that is $9.00 worth of N.  Conversely if the canopy coverage was 80% only 20% or 9 lbs of N would be tied up in the residue. Saving the $3.60 in nitrogen would not justify a second trip over the field. Luckily OSU recently released the Canopeo app which uses a cell phones camera to take pictures and quickly and accurately determine % canopy coverage.  Canopeo is available for iOS and android http://canopeoapp.com/.

In fields with a high amount of residue or limited canopy coverage UAN should be applied with streamer nozzles.  This will concentration the fertilizer into streams which will allow the UAN to have enough volume to move off the residue and into the soil.

So as the decision is being made to tank mix herbicide and UAN or make two passes take into consideration: % canopy coverage, rate of UAN (how much could be lost), cost of UAN per pound, and cost of a second trip over the field.

Below is an excerpt from the publication Best Management Practices for Nitrogen Fertilizer in Missouri; Peter C. Scharf and John A. Lory. http://plantsci.missouri.edu/nutrientmanagement/nitrogen/practices.htm

Broadcasting UAN solution (28 percent to 32 percent N) is not recommended when residue levels are high because of the potential for the N in the droplets to become tied up on the residue. Dribbling the solution in a surface band will reduce tie-up on residue, and knife or coulter injection will eliminate it. Limited research suggests that the same conclusions probably apply for grass hay or pasture. Broadcast UAN solution is also susceptible to volatile loss of N to the air in the same way as urea, but only half as much will be lost (half of the N in UAN solution is in the urea form).

Some thoughts on pre-plant nitrogen and a little outside the box thinking

It is that time of year, every Co-op I drove by the other day had a line of trucks pulling anhydrous tanks and the spinner spreaders were being loaded.  For those of you who haven’t applied your nitrogen yet lets discuss the options traditional and nontraditional.

Anhydrous Ammonia, 82-0-0: by far the most widely used N source is the southern Great Plains.  While it is not the most enjoyable to work with it is the cheapest per pound of N and that leads to its wide spread use without Oklahoma wheat production.  Just a few simple rules with NH3, get it in the ground and close the row behind you.  In conventional till this is usually easier unless the ground is too wet or too dry.  In no-till this may be a little more challenging but usually easily accomplished.  With the rise in low disturbance applicators I am seeing more and more acres of no-till receiving NH3.  Last year I was in a field of stripper stubble and I had a hard time finding where the rig had run, minus wheel tracks.

Urea, 46-0-0: is second on the hit list in nitrogen sales in our state.  It is a safe source that is easily handled and applied. In a conventional till system where the urea can be worked in shortly after application it is a very efficient and effective source.  Unfortunately when it is applied to the soil surface and rain is the method of incorporation we can experience between 5-60% N losses.  The losses come from how urea is converted to plant available ammonium (NH4).  For urea (NH2)2CO2, to be converted to plant available NH4 it needs the enzyme urease.  Urease is present everywhere but in the highest concentrations on plant residue.  The figure below shows the reaction, urease converts urea into NH3 as soon as the prill dissolves.  In the presence of moisture the NH3 (gas) is turned immediately to NH4 (solid) and is absorbed onto the soil particle.

Graphic of Urea's conversion to plant available ammonium.

Graphic of Urea’s conversion to plant available ammonium.

The problems come when there is no soil particle for the NH4 to bind with.  It usually takes 0.50 inches of rain or irrigation to fully dissolve and incorporate urea into the soil.  So if we only get a few tenths or hundredths, even heavy dews, some of the urea will dissolve, be converted to NH3 then NH4 and be left on the plant/residue.  When the moisture dries, some or all of the NH4 goes back to NH3 and will gas off into the atmosphere. I have even seen this happen when urea is applied on a wet/damp soil, not incorporated and it doesn’t rain for significant period of time.  If the temps are cooler the urease is slower so less of the urea is converted to NH4, but if the temps are warm 60+ degrees these little enzymes can act very quickly.

Urea placed on the surface of a wet soil under two temperature regimes. White text is the number of hours after application.

Urea placed on the surface of a wet soil under two temperature regimes. White text is the number of hours after application.

Urea placed on dry soil, Top row: dry soil no water added, Bottom left, moisture added from subsurface, Bottom right : simulated rain fall event of 1/2". White text is the number of hours after application.

Urea placed on dry soil, Top row: dry soil no water added, Bottom left, moisture added from subsurface, Bottom right : simulated rain fall event of 1/2″. White text is the number of hours after application.











Below is a short video on using urea fertilizer.

While the recent rains are a blessing and will surely help germination, it is not aiding our N use efficiency especially in no-till. That is why in some parts of the state you may see some grain drills running right now.  Some of those producers are not planting wheat they are actually applying there pre-plant urea.  I have even been told in the SW part of the start some producers are using air-seeders to apply their urea.  While this seems like a costly venture I have worked with the Ag Economist to create a calculator to figure up the break even for when it would pay to use an air-seeder over the traditional spinner spreader in no-till. We hope to put the finishing touches on it in the next few days.  When it is completed it will be shared on this blog.

Liquid Urea Ammonium Nitrate, 32-0-0 or 28-0-0: while this is one of the more expensive forms of N many producers are utilizing this source because the can pre buy and store on site and as sprayer get larger they can cover a significant amount of ground quickly.  For the most part UAN is used in no-till and is a great source.  I always recommend that applicators use streamer nozzle or streamer bars to apply UAN.  When UAN is applied via a flat fan nozzle it spreads the fertilizer across the residue allowing a significant portion to be tied up.  The streamers concentrate the fertilizer into streams/bands reducing contact with residue and increasing the amount of UAN that reaches the soil surface.

Timing and Rates

The cost of anhydrous, about $0.1 to 0.12 less per pound N less than urea is driving its use this year.  The lower price is also driving a significant about of producers to go with 100% of their N pre-plant.  While this makes for sound economics now having all of your N upfront is like putting all of your eggs in one basket.  If we do get that cold and wet winter as some are calling for this presents a great chance for the N to move down the soil profile and down the slope.  I have always recommended split application.  This allows a producer to judge the crop throughout fall, winter and even yearly spring and adjust his or her N plan accordingly.  For those who plan to graze there is still a need to get enough N down to produce fall forage, this may be 50 to 80 lbs of N, but for grain only production planted later in the fall a typical crop may only need 20-30 lbs of N before going into winter.  The old rules of thumb, 2 lbs N per bushel and 30 lbs N per 100 lbs of gain still work and are better than a guestimate but we have better ways. Right now is the time to plan to apply N-rich strip, a strip in the field with 40 to 50 lbs more than the rest of the field.  These strips can be applied with a variety of applicators, but as long as the N goes down in at least an area 10 ft wide by 300 ft long it is good to go.

Just a few of the applicators used for putting out N-Rich Strips. Not shown is NH3 applicator.

Just a few of the applicators used for putting out N-Rich Strips. ATV Sprayer, Receiver Hitch mounted Sprayer, Road sprayer with a rear boom, pull type spinner, large sprayer, push spreader.  Not shown is NH3 applicator.

Below is a N-Rich Strip 101 video.

If you have got the N-Rich strips out you can set back and watch to see when and if they develop.  If you can see the strip you know you need too fertilize.
While many are not ready to think about top-dressing yet, it is never too early.  Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.  Oklahoma’s springs tend to present the perfect conditions for N loss when urea is the primary N source.  This year in a 4R Top-dress Nitrogen Application Demo, at Lahoma and Chickasha, we are going to apply just about every available commercial source in about every possible manor.  Urea will be broadcast, coated with inhibitors, applied with a grain drill, NH3 will be knifed in, and UAN will be applied with flat fan nozzles, streamer nozzles and knifed in.  As technologies improve and the cost of N remains relatively high the options for top-dress N application will continue to improve. The economics of wheat production don’t look great right now so don’t be afraid to think outside the box, even if it does raise the eyebrows of your neighbors.  Fill free to contact myself or your local extension educator if you have any questions about N application.


John Deere double disk drill used to apply urea in-season.

John Deere double disk drill used to apply urea in-season.

WAKO NH3 applicator used for in-season application.

WAKO NH3 applicator used for in-season application.