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Nitrogen modeling shows its value in tough year

What do you think of when you hear the term, “nutrient stewardship?” Increased regulations? Reduced cost? More efficient fertility? Or does it simply mean “doing the right thing?”

This past year, MFA offered a nitrogen tool that modeled nitrogen loss and helped producers and agronomists make educated decisions on an acre-by-acre basis. Usage of the tool grew from 30,000 acres in 2018 to 160,000 acres in 2019. Talk about a year to launch a tool for nitrogen loss! We had record rainfall at the wrong time. We experienced prolonged periods of saturated soils that ultimately caused us to lose higher-than-normal amounts of nitrogen in some areas. 

What did we gain from this tool?

While this tool does allow us to export VRT (variable rate technology) recommendations to load in the spreader, what we found was that nitrogen modeling gave us some insights to soil type, production practices and weather—to name a few. This model uses several layers to predict nitrogen loss. While the tool isn’t the gospel, it does start the conversation around nutrient stewardship, allowing us to make sure we are taking care of the crop while not overapplying or underapplying nitrogen.

What are the results?

The combines started rolling the first week of September in our southern area and will continue harvesting for a while. We expect to see a greater NUE (nitrogen use efficiency) where the model’s recommendations were followed, but time will tell. The ultimate determining factor will be ROI. What can this tool and many others do to the bottom line for your operation? We have looked at and tested these and many others throughout the past couple seasons, but never in a year with this much moisture and with saturated soils for this long. These are some of the questions we will address as we collect data from our research sites. 

What other nitrogen issues are we facing?

Every spring I get asked if we need to protect our anhydrous with a stabilizer. And the answer is, “yes.” This year was a great case study for why you need to protect NH3 with an effective stabilizer. I’ve been in fields that had spring-applied anhydrous ammonia with and without the nitrogen stabilizer, N-Serve, and, boy, a visual difference was apparent. The truth will come when combines roll across the field. Same with top dress. We need to make sure we are protecting our urea with N-Guard, which contains nBPT to combat volatilization, or by using Super-U, which has both nBPT and dicyandiamide (DCD) to protect nitrogen above and below ground.

Other factors to consider?

I’ve traveled across our trade area and have seen fields that look great next to fields that have plenty of cover—from cover crops to just natural cover of weeds, mainly waterhemp and marestail. This will provide many other challenges that I will discuss another time. However, one topic that I do want to cover is the amount of erosion I’ve witnessed this year. While we all know this wasn’t a normal year and hope we don’t see this again, we can learn from these challenges. Some of the observations that I took away was the color of water runoff from many of the fields. I had the opportunity to see fields with and without cover crops, tillage versus no-till, etc. There a big difference. Where cover crops were planted and no-till was used, there was little to no color in the water leaving the field, while tilled fields were another story. On the other hand, tilled fields with cover crops still had loss of soil, but it was significantly reduced compared to the no-cover tilled fields. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what needs to be done. 

When developing a nutrient stewardship plan, keep in mind it is a living plan that will need to be adjusted when weather events, crop failures or other obstacles get thrown your way. Reach out to your local MFA to make a plan today.

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