Soil Testing and 4R Nutrient Stewardship

Each year, farmers aim to increase agricultural production and profitability while conserving our land resources for the next generation. These tandem goals drive sustainable soil fertility and crop nutrition decisions on cropland across the world.

In 2005, global fertilizer industry and environmental stakeholders began developing a standard theme to emphasize science-based stewardship in soil fertility and crop nutrition. The theme eventually became known as 4R Nutrient Stewardship, where each “R” referred to the “right” way to manage nutrients for crop production. The 4Rs are summarized as managing crop nutrition with the 1) Right Source, 2) Right Rate, 3) Right Time, and 4) Right Place.

To successfully implement 4R Nutrient Stewardship, you must start with a high-quality soil sample and an informative soil test. To begin, the fertilizer need and amount is determined through soil testing, which is based on regionally calibrated soil test levels for each crop. If you do not have a soil test, how do you know what the Right Rate is? Using crop removal rates or simply guessing without soil testing often leads to overapplication of fertilizer, cutting into profit.

A conventional whole-field composite soil sample (one soil sample per field) is certainly better than no soil sample. It gets you in the ballpark, but it does not detect variation in soil nutrient levels across the field. You might underapply fertilizer on high yielding parts and overapply fertilizer on low yielding parts. To get the Right Rate applied in the Right Place, precision soil sampling, either grid or zone, is the best way to determine the appropriate fertilizer rate and where to apply it in each field. Precision soil sampling is a proven tool to reduce over- and under-fertilization across fields, thus optimizing crop yield and profitability while reducing the potential risk of soil nutrient loss to the environment.

When you start soil sampling and making soil fertility plans for next year, keep 4R Nutrient Stewardship in mind. AGVISE Laboratories is a proud 4R Partner. To learn more about the 4Rs or become a 4R Partner, visit the 4R Nutrient Stewardship website.

Split the Risk with In-season Nitrogen

For some farmers, applying fertilizer in the fall is a standard practice. You can often take advantage of lower fertilizer prices, reduce the spring workload, and guarantee that fertilizer is applied before planting. As you work on developing your crop nutrition plan, you may want to consider saving a portion of the nitrogen budget for in-season nitrogen topdress or sidedress application.

Some farmers always include topdressing or sidedressing nitrogen as part of their crop nutrition plan. These farmers have witnessed too many years with high in-season nitrogen losses, usually on sandy or clayey soils, through nitrate leaching or denitrification. Split-applied nitrogen is one way to reduce early season nitrogen loss, but do not delay too long before rapid crop nitrogen uptake begins.

Short-season crops, like small grains or canola, develop quickly. Your window for topdress nitrogen is short, so earlier is better than later. To maximize yield in small grains, apply all topdress nitrogen before jointing (5-leaf stage). Any nitrogen applied after jointing will mostly go to grain protein. In canola, apply nitrogen during the rosette stage, before the 6-leaf stage. For topdressing, the most effective nitrogen sources are broadcast NBPT-treated urea (46-0-0) or urea-ammonium nitrate (UAN, 28-0-0) applied through streamer bar (limits leaf burn). Like any surface-applied urea or UAN, ammonia volatilization is a concern. An effective urease inhibitor (e.g. Agrotain, generic NBPT) offers about 7 to 10 days of protection before rain can hopefully incorporate the urea or UAN into soil.

Long-season crops, like corn or sunflower, offer more time. Rapid nitrogen uptake in corn does not begin until after V6 growth stage. The Presidedress Soil Nitrate Test (PSNT), taken when corn is 6 to 12 inches tall, can help you decide the appropriate sidedress nitrogen rate. Topdress NBPT-treated urea is a quick and easy option when corn is small (before V6 growth stage). After corn reaches V10 growth stage, you should limit the topdress urea rate to less than 60 lb/acre (28 lb/acre nitrogen) to prevent whorl burn.

Sidedress nitrogen provides great flexibility in nitrogen sources and rates in row crops like corn, sugarbeet, or sunflower. Sidedress anhydrous ammonia can be safely injected between 30-inch rows. Anhydrous ammonia is not recommended in wet clay soils because the injection trenches do not seal well. Surface-dribbled or coulter-injected UAN can be applied on any soil texture. Surface-dribbled UAN is vulnerable to ammonia volatilization until you receive sufficient rain, so injecting UAN below the soil surface helps reduce ammonia loss. Injecting anhydrous ammonia or UAN below the soil surface also reduces contact with crop residue and potential nitrogen immobilization.

An effective in-season nitrogen program starts with planning. In years with substantial nitrogen loss, a planned in-season nitrogen application is usually more successful than a rescue application. If you are considering split-applied nitrogen for the first time, consider your options for nitrogen sources, application timing and workload, and application equipment. Split-applied nitrogen is another tool to reduce nitrogen loss risk and maximize yield potential.

Phosphorus and the 4Rs: The progress we have made

The year 2019 marked the 350th anniversary of discovering phosphorus, an element required for all life on Earth and an essential plant nutrient in crop production. Over the years, we have fallen in and out of love with phosphorus as a necessary crop input and an unwanted water pollutant. Through improved knowledge and technologies, we have made great progress in phosphorus management in crop production. Let’s take a look at our accomplishments!

Right Rate

Phosphorus fertilizer need and amount is determined through soil testing, based on regionally calibrated soil test levels for each crop. Soils with low soil test phosphorus require more fertilizer to optimize crop production, whereas soils with excess soil test phosphorus may only require a starter rate. Across the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains, soil testing shows that our crops generally need MORE phosphorus to optimize crop yield (Figure 1), particularly as crop yield and crop phosphorus removal in grain has increased. Since plant-available phosphorus varies across any field, precision soil sampling (grid or zone) allows us to vary fertilizer rates to better meet crop phosphorus requirements in different parts of the field.

For phosphorus and the 4Rs article

Figure 1. Soil samples with soil test phosphorus below 15 ppm critical level (Olsen P) across the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains in 2019.

Right Source

Nearly all phosphorus fertilizer materials sold in the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains are some ammoniated phosphate source, which has better plant availability in calcareous soils. Monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 11-52-0) is the most common dry source and convenient as a broadcast or seed-placed fertilizer. Some new phosphate products also include sulfur and micronutrients in the fertilizer granule, helping improve nutrient distribution and handling. The most common fluid source is ammonium polyphosphate (APP, 10-34-0), which usually contains about 75% polyphosphate and 25% orthophosphate that is available for immediate plant uptake. Liquid polyphosphate has the impressive ability to carry 2% zinc in solution, whereas pure orthophosphate can only carry 0.05% zinc. Such fertilizer product synergies help optimize phosphorus and micronutrient use efficiency.

Right Time

Soils of the northern Great Plains are often cold in spring, and early season plant phosphorus uptake can be limited to new seedlings and their small root systems. We apply phosphorus before or at planting to ensure adequate plant-available phosphorus to young plants and foster strong plant development. In-season phosphorus is rarely effective as a preventive or corrective strategy.

Right Place

Proper phosphorus placement depends on your system and goals. Broadcasting phosphorus fertilizer followed by incorporation allows quick application and uniform distribution of high phosphorus rates. This strategy works well if you are building soil test phosphorus in conventional till systems. In no-till systems, broadcast phosphorus without incorporation is not ideal because soluble phosphorus left on the surface can move with runoff to water bodies.

In no-till systems, subsurface banded phosphorus is more popular because phosphorus is placed below the soil surface, thus less vulnerable to runoff losses. In general, banded phosphorus is more efficient than broadcast phosphorus. In the concentrated fertilizer band, less soil reacts with the fertilizer granules, thus reducing phosphorus fixation, allowing improved plant phosphorus uptake. Some planting equipment configurations have the ability to place fertilizer near or with seed, which further optimizes fertilizer placement and timing for young plants.

For more information on 4R phosphorus management, please read this excellent open-access review article: Grant, C.A., and D.N. Flaten. 2019. J. Environ. Qual. 48(5):1356–1369.

Prevented Planting Acres in 2020: Maximizing Cover Crop Effectiveness

In 2020, there are again widespread acres of Prevented Planting (PP) in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota. Farmers are now making plans to plant cover crops on unplanted cropland in the next few weeks. It is important to establish cover crops on PP fields because growing plants help reduce the chance these fields will be PP fields again next year.

Let’s look at the major reasons why cover crops are valuable tools on Prevented Planting acres.

Soil Water Use

A field without any growing plants is a fallow field. Before no-till, summer fallow was a widespread soil water conservation strategy in dryland agriculture. Actively growing plants transpire (use) a lot more water than evaporation from the soil surface alone does. Cover crops help fill the water-use void by transpiring a lot of water, helping to dry the soil surface and lower the water table before the following year. This also opens space in the soil profile for summer and fall rains to leach soluble salts from the soil surface and reduce salinity in the root zone.

Soil Erosion Control

Tillage is a popular weed control tool, but it also destroys crop residue and leaves soil exposed and vulnerable to water and wind erosion. Planting cover crops protects the soil surface from rain and wind, keeping soil firmly in place. Just because you cannot grow a cash crop on the field this year, you should not let your soil blow into the next field, letting your neighbor farm it next year.

Weed Control

An established cover crop can compete with weeds, helping suppress weed growth and weed seed production. For fields with problematic broadleaf weed histories, a cover crop mix containing only grass species is preferred. In grass cover crops, you can still use selective broadleaf weed herbicides to control the problematic broadleaf weeds of conventional or no-till systems such as Canada thistle, common ragweed, kochia, volunteer canola, and waterhemp while not killing the grass cover crop. For fields with low weed pressure, a cover crop mix containing grasses, brassicas, and legumes will provide more soil health benefits.

Soil Biological Activity

Have you heard about “fallow syndrome” before? Fallow syndrome is an induced nutrient deficiency, often seen in corn following fallow, when the population of mycorrhiza fungi is insufficient to colonize plant roots and help them acquire water and nutrients. Mycorrhizae are especially important in plant uptake of phosphorus, so plants with fallow syndrome often show phosphorus deficiency symptoms. Fallow syndrome is a major concern in corn following summer fallow or Prevented Planting without cover crop.

During the Prevented Planting year, it is important to include grass species in the cover crop mix to support and maintain the mycorrhiza population through next year. Brassica species, like radish and turnip, are often included in cover crop mixes for their deep taproot architecture and high forage value for grazing livestock, but brassicas do not support mycorrhizae. You do not want a cover crop mix consisting of brassica species alone because fallow syndrome might occur next year.

 

In June 2020, excessive rainfall slammed some parts of the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains, drenching soils with 3 to 15 inches of rain over a couple days. On summer-flooded fields, cereal rye is an attractive soil management tool. You can plant or fly on cereal rye well into August or mid-September, and it will continue to use soil water through late summer and fall. Next spring, the overwintered rye will grow again, using more soil water and maintaining soil structure, providing you with a much better chance to plant the field. If soybean is the next crop, you can plant glyphosate-tolerant soybean into green cereal rye then terminate the cereal rye with glyphosate later. This practice has become more and more popular on difficult fields.

Do not forget about soil fertility and plant nutrition for cover crops. A modest application of nitrogen will help cover crop establishment, plant water use, and competition with weeds, as cover crops with adequate nitrogen will grow faster and larger than those without nitrogen. Around 46 lb/acre nitrogen (100 lb/acre urea, 46-0-0) should be enough to establish nice cover crop growth. Prevented Planting fields, being wetter than those successfully planted in spring, lost some, if not most, soil nitrogen via nitrate leaching or denitrification. Although additional nitrogen may have mineralized from soil organic matter during May and June, excess precipitation in June may have caused additional soil nitrogen loss. The best way to know is collecting 0-12 or 0-24 inch soil samples for nitrate-nitrogen analysis.

As you choose the appropriate cover crop mix on Prevented Planting fields, you must consider the pros and cons of each cover crop species and how each will help accomplish your goals. These are some helpful resources that will provide additional information on what cover crop options will work best on your fields.

High Soil Nitrogen following Drought: How to manage next year

From time to time, moderate to severe droughts hit the Great Plains. Such is life in semi-arid climates. When a drought occurs, it is normal to find higher residual soil nitrate-nitrogen after harvest. Since the widespread adoption of soil testing in the 1970s, we have seen this phenomenon in all major drought years: 1988, 2002, 2006, 2012, 2017 (Figure 1). The lack of precipitation and exhausted stored soil water reduces crop growth and yield, meaning much of the applied nitrogen fertilizer remains unused, showing up in the residual soil nitrate-nitrogen test. In 2017, very high residual soil nitrate-nitrogen was observed across wide geographies of western North Dakota and South Dakota (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Residual soil nitrate-nitrogen following wheat on the northern Great Plains.

 

 

Figure 2. Residual soil nitrate-nitrogen following wheat on the northern Great Plains in 2017.

 

Following a drought, we often get the question, “Can I count on all the soil nitrate in my soil test for next year’s crop?” The simple answer is yes; you can count on the amount of soil nitrate-nitrogen in the soil test, but you must consider additional factors. Even in drought, some parts of each field will produce higher crop yield than other parts because the better soils have higher water holding capacity (e.g. higher clay content, higher organic matter). In the high yielding zones, there is less residual soil nitrate remaining in the soil profile. Drought will create more variability in crop yield and residual soil nitrate, mostly driven by topography and soil texture.

Let’s imagine you had a wheat crop severely affected by drought, but some parts of the field still had 50% normal yield (maybe lower landscape positions, greater water holding capacity). Following harvest, the whole-field composite soil test showed 140 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch). You were skeptical about that very high residual soil nitrate level, so the crop consultant resampled the parts with better crop yield, which then had 80 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch). Using the whole-field composite soil test result of 140 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch), you would only need to apply some starter nitrogen fertilizer for next year’s crop. However, if you only applied starter nitrogen, the high yielding parts of the field with only 80 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch) would be under-fertilized, costing crop yield and profit next year, on the best soils in the field.

If you only have a whole-field composite soil test result, you must consider spatial variability in residual soil nitrate across the field. You will want to apply a base nitrogen fertilizer rate to cover the parts with lower residual soil nitrate than the field average. The base nitrogen fertilizer rate may range between 30 to 60 lb/acre N, depending on spatial variability and risk tolerance. If you do zone soil sampling, you have a much better idea of spatial variability and nitrogen fertilizer needs in all parts of your fields. Through productivity zone soil sampling, you know the residual soil nitrate level in each management zone, and you can choose different nitrogen fertilizer rates across the field.

If you only soil sample the surface soil depth (0-6 inch), you are missing 75% of the plant-available nitrate-nitrogen pie. To make good nitrogen decisions, you should collect 0-24 inch soil samples for soil nitrate-nitrogen analysis. In drought, plant roots explore deep for stored soil water and uptake whatever nitrate is found along the way. There is no way to model how much soil nitrate remains in the soil profile after drought. Following drought, the best strategy is 24-inch soil sampling and breaking fields into several management zones to determine the proper amount of nitrogen fertilizer required.