Keeping Calm and Prioritizing Efficiency in the Face of Volatile Nitrogen Costs
With prices looking appealing, growers may be tempted to opt for a one-shot N program, but that may end up costing them. Find out why growers should continue focusing on nutrient efficiency to protect farm finances and reduce nutrient loss even as nitrogen prices drop.
With expertise provided by Erin Doran, Sales Agronomist at Sound.
With anhydrous ammonia prices around ¢60 a pound, down from $1 a pound last year, growers are trying to take advantage of this drop after an expensive year for fertilizer. For some growers, that means maximizing their nitrogen applications now.
“For some growers, it’s very tempting to try to do a one-shot nitrogen program this year, in fear of nitrogen prices doubling or tripling come spring,” says Erin Doran, Sales Agronomist with Sound.
“I’ve seen more nitrogen put down in the fall this year than I have in a long time,” says Erin. “Part of the reason is the price drop and part is that it was dry enough for them to get across all their acres this fall — growers often worry that the spring is going to be too wet and the soils aren’t going to warm up fast enough for them to apply fertilizer then as well.”
While Erin understands why a big, one-shot application of nitrogen in the fall or even the spring sounds appealing right now, she says the best thing to do for the crop, the soil and a grower’s finances is to keep prioritizing efficiency to avoid nutrient loss and protect farm finances.
The Problem With One-Shots
One of the biggest reasons growers should think twice about a one-shot nitrogen program is the huge potential for loss through volatilization or leaching before it can make it to the crop. Conditions across the midwest haven’t been ideal; in addition to drought conditions for most of the year, temperatures didn’t drop as fast as they normally do, meaning the soil didn’t cool as quickly.
“If you apply fall anhydrous and one-shot the whole thing, you’re probably going to lose 60% of the nitrogen you put out, even with a stabilizer,” she says. Ideal conditions don’t change much though; huge fertilizer applications are just not an efficient use of nitrogen or money.
“When you put that much nitrogen on the field in the fall, we know you lose the majority of it,” Erin explains. “My background is utilizing nitrogen models for growers — I have direct experience seeing how much nitrogen you lose.”
The New Best Practice
For decades, it was often understood that pounds of nitrogen applied to a field directly related to bushels harvested; under good conditions, 200 pounds of nitrogen would yield 200 bushels of corn, giving a grower a Nutrient Use Efficiency (NUE) score of 1.
That mindset is changing, however, as more information and research becomes available to growers, agronomists and researchers. More and more growers are able to achieve one bushel of crop with less than one pound of nitrogen, lowering their NUE score.
“Growers are realizing that they need less nitrogen to get into that 0.8 NUE range and to do that, they need to optimize when and how they put out that nitrogen to ensure the crop can use it,” says Erin.
Optimizing nitrogen application means the nitrogen will be in the soil when the crop needs it and reduces environmental loss through leaching and volatilization. “By only applying what you need, you don’t lose as much nitrogen and you’re not flushing money out of the soil,” says Erin.
For growers hesitant to give up one-shot fall applications, Erin points out that being judicious in the fall leaves more options open for the spring, allowing growers to respond to weather conditions and their fields’ needs.
“There are a lot more options available to growers today to apply nitrogen in the spring than there were in the past,” she says.
When you shoot a lot of nitrogen at the plant, it can't take it up all at once. You're relying on your soil to hold the nitrogen and trying to convert it later, which is risky.
Some of those options include side-dress and 32% UAN applications, but there are also newer products growers can try as well. Some products try to boost the number of microbes in the soil and others, like SOURCEⓇ by Sound, can help growers optimize the nitrogen already in their fields. SOURCE is an easy to apply chemistry that activates the microbes already in a grower’s soil and provides in-season access to plant-available forms of key nutrients like nitrogen.
Whatever practices and products a grower chooses, though, Erin says knowing when the crop needs nitrogen and applying smaller amounts at different times makes it more likely the nutrient will get into the plant.
“When you shoot a lot of nitrogen at the plant, it can’t take it up all at once,” she explains. “You’re relying on your soil to hold the nitrogen and trying to convert it later.” With smaller doses of nitrogen, the soil can convert it into forms the plant can use and bring it to the plant when it’s needed, ensuring the nitrogen a grower applies actually gets used and, ultimately, saving growers money.
Erin hopes growers will hold out against the pressure to buy and apply lots of nitrogen now out of fear of higher prices in spring 2023, because ultimately, it will save them money.
“Growers are realizing how important it is to optimize the nitrogen they are putting out in the most efficient manner,” she says.