Lessons (Ghosts) of Droughts Past

From Alberta to Iowa, the region has experienced everything from abnormally dry soil conditions to exceptional drought. In some places, the drought started in 2020 and has continued through 2021. Considering lower than expected crop yields, we expect that residual soil nitrate-nitrogen levels will be much higher than normal in many wheat, canola, and corn fields this fall. There was reduced crop nitrogen uptake and little to no soil nitrogen losses to leaching or denitrification through the growing season, which should result in higher soil test nitrate-N remaining in the soil profile.

In major drought years, high residual nitrate levels are a normal phenomenon. In 1988, the average soil nitrate test following wheat across the region was a staggering 107 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile). This is considerably higher than the long-term average around 30-45 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile). The 1988 drought was extreme, and 2021 has rivaled that in some locations. Based on previous drought years, it will be no surprise to find wheat fields with 80-100 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile) or even higher.

Past experience also shows us that drought can create greater crop yield variability across fields. Some zones in the field with better water holding capacity and soil organic matter may have produced a decent crop yield, and these will have lower residual soil nitrate-N. Yet, other zones may have had very poor crop growth and yield, leaving very high amounts of soil nitrate-N remaining.

Zone soil sampling is always a good idea, but it is especially important in drought years. Soil sampling based on productivity zones is the only way to determine the correct amount of nitrogen fertilizer in each zone across the field. To create good productivity zones for soil sampling, it is best to use multiple data layers such as satellite imagery, crop yield maps, topography, or electrical conductivity (Veris or EM38).

This fall, we expect residual soil nitrate-N to be higher than normal, but there will be exceptions to the rule. Last spring, there was a lot of broadcast urea fertilizer applied without incorporation. If no rain was received for several weeks after application, much of the nitrogen could have been lost to ammonia volatilization. This means some fields will seem out of place with lower residual soil nitrate-nitrogen because fertilizer nitrogen was lost last spring.

For fields with more than 150 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile), the crop nitrogen requirement for next year may not call for much, if any, nitrogen fertilizer. We must remember that drought creates variability within a field and even within large productivity zones. This is why we always suggest applying a base amount of nitrogen fertilizer to address the variability, even if the soil nitrate test is more than 150 lb/acre nitrate-N. A base nitrogen fertilizer rate (maybe 20 to 40 lb/acre N) should address most of the field variability and provide a fast start to the next year’s crop. In 1988, we learned the tough lesson that applying no nitrogen fertilizer on fields testing very high for nitrate-N was a mistake, and the best producing parts of fields had early-season nitrogen deficiencies. A modest base nitrogen fertilizer rate was the right decision to cover field variability.

Three Simple Lessons from Droughts Past

  1. Soil test all fields for residual soil nitrate-N. There will be considerable variability from field to field and even zone to zone.
  2. The residual soil nitrate-N test allows you to reduce nitrogen fertilizer rates for next year, saving money on crop inputs for 2022.
  3. Remember to apply a modest base nitrogen fertilizer rate on fields testing very high in nitrate-N to address field variability. You will want to get next year’s crop started right.

Update: Feed Nitrate Testing in a Drought Year

Drought continues to stress crops across the upper Midwest and the Canadian Prairies. As crop conditions continue to deteriorate in some places, we have received more phone calls about salvaging the drought-stressed crop as livestock feed and the need for feed nitrate testing. As you consider what to do with your standing crop, whether to harvest for grain or cut for hay, an important part of that consideration will be the nitrate concentration of the crop.

When drought-stressed annual crops (e.g., wheat, barley, oat, corn) are cut or grazed, producers must exercise caution about livestock nitrate poisoning when feeding these forages. Drought-stressed crops often accumulate nitrate because plant uptake of nitrate exceeds plant growth and nitrogen utilization. Nitrate is usually concentrated in lower plant parts (lower stem or stalk). When livestock, particularly sheep and cattle, ingest forages with a high nitrate concentration, nitrate poisoning can occur.

Instructions for collecting and submitting a feed nitrate test

1. Collect the plant part that livestock will consume, which may be the whole aboveground plant. If grazing, be mindful of the grazing height because the plant nitrate concentration will be lower near the base of the plant. If baling for hay or chopping for silage, cut at the intended cutter bar height.

Picture used for feed nitrate email - corn collage

2. Cut plant material with sturdy garden shears into 1- to 2-inch pieces. Mix the chopped plant parts together and take one quart-sized subsample for analysis (about four good handfuls).

3. Place subsample in AGVISE Plant Sample Bag. Write “Feed Nitrate” as the crop choice and select “Nitrate-nitrogen” as the analysis option.

    • If you are considering chopping corn for silage, also write “%Moisture” as an additional analysis because you will need to know if the moisture content is still adequate for silage fermentation. You may be surprised how much water will still be in drought-stressed corn stalks.

4. Ship plant sample to AGVISE Laboratories. If you cannot ship the sample right away, store it in a refrigerator until you can ship it.

IMPORTANT: Resample the hay or silage before feeding to any livestock. You need to know what is actually being fed to livestock, and you may need to blend it with other feed sources to dilute the nitrate concentration. For dry hay in bales, the nitrate concentration will not change in storage; use a hay probe to obtain the best possible feed sample. For silage, the nitrate concentration may decrease 20 to 50% during fermentation, so a fresh sample is necessary before feeding.

IMPORTANT: Many crop protection products have grazing restrictions on their labels that dictate if or when a crop treated with a product can be fed to livestock. Before using or selling a crop for livestock feed, check all labels of crop protection products that have been used on the crop this season. This includes seed treatments, herbicide applications, fungicide applications, and insecticide applications.

AGVISE Laboratories offers next-day turnaround for feed nitrate analysis. Rapid turnaround on nitrate analysis is important for producers debating to cut and bale or graze small grains or corn as livestock feed.  We also provide livestock water analysis, which includes total dissolved solids, nitrate, and sulfate, to assess livestock drinking water quality. Please call AGVISE staff in Northwood, ND (701-587- 6010) or Benson, MN (320-843-4109) with questions about nitrate, feed and hay quality, or water analysis. We can send you sampling supplies if needed.

AGVISE Laboratories Online Supplies Store

Helpful resources on using drought-stressed crops for livestock feed:

Nitrate Poisoning of Livestock (NDSU)

Using Drought-Stressed Corn as Forage (SDSU)

Drought-Related Issues in Forage, Silage and Baleage (Univ. of Missouri)

Potassium and Drought: A Two-fold Water Uptake Problem

Potassium is back on the radar for many farmers and agronomists across the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains. In the past two weeks, corn growth and development have reached the stage where potassium deficiencies are becoming quite apparent, and widespread dry soil conditions during the 2021 drought have worsened the problem. In some instances, corn is displaying potassium deficiency symptoms on soils with medium to high soil test K (120 to 180 ppm) in spite of potassium fertilizer application.

Potassium is required in large quantities for plant growth and development. The plant tissue K range in normal corn plants is 3-5% K, which is similar to nitrogen. A 200-bushel/acre corn crop will typically uptake 200 lb N, 108 lb P2O5, and 280 lb K2O per acre through the growing season (IPNI, 2014). In other words, an actively growing corn crop takes a lot of potassium! Luckily, you do not have to apply all that potassium as fertilizer, and much will come from the plant-available K pool in the soil.

Potassium deficiency in corn. Symptoms are leaf chlorosis (yellowing) and necrosis (death) beginning at the leaf tip and outer leaf margin and progressing toward the midrib, often with wavy leaf edges. Potassium is mobile in the plant, so symptoms appear on the lower leaves first as the plant remobilizes potassium from lower leaves to support new plant growth. 

Drought reduces potassium availability

The plant-available K pool becomes less available when soil water is limited. This has become the top story as the 2021 drought has continued. Plant roots acquire potassium mostly through a process called diffusion. Diffusion is the slow movement of ions through water around soil particles to the plant root for uptake. As soil becomes drier, the thickness of the water film around soil particles becomes thinner and thinner, thus the diffusion path for potassium ions becomes longer and longer. The soil pore space becomes mostly air with little water remaining. This ultimately slows the rate at which potassium from soil or fertilizer can reach the plant root, and potassium deficiency may occur.

The consequence of the drought-induced potassium deficiency is two-fold because potassium also plays an essential role in plant water regulation. Potassium-stressed plants experience reduced photosynthesis and transpiration rates, resulting in poor water use efficiency of the already limited soil water that is available. In a nutshell, low soil water content reduces potassium availability from soil and fertilizer, and then the soil water that is there is poorly utilized because of the lack of potassium. In addition to limited soil water, other factors compound to reduce potassium uptake: soil test K, soil texture, clay mineralogy, soil compaction, and even fluffy soil syndrome.

Believe it or not, fluffy soil syndrome has been a component of more than one phone call concerning potassium deficiency. Do you see greener plants near the planter wheel tracks or sprayer tracks? Fluffy soil syndrome occurs when soil has not completely settled since spring tillage, which results in poor soil particle-to-particle contact and slow soil-water-root diffusion routes for potassium ions. The wheel tracks adequately firmed the soil to provide good soil particle-to-particle contact, maintaining better potassium diffusion.

Potassium deficiency in corn: A case study

In June 2021, AGVISE started to receive plant and soil samples to diagnose suspected potassium deficiencies in various crops. This corn example from west central Minnesota included plant and soil samples collected in the good and poor areas of the field. The leaf K concentration was 0.59% in the good and 0.52% in the poor area. For comparison, the corn leaf K sufficiency range at this growth sage should be 2-3% K. The corresponding soil samples had soil test K at 148 ppm in the good and 140 ppm in the poor area. The soil test K critical level for corn is 150-200 ppm, and the farmer had applied 50 lb/acre K2O broadcast + incorporation, which is very close to the university sufficiency guideline for corn. Although the farmer more or less did everything right for a normal rainfall year, drought conditions have reduced potassium availability to the point where potassium deficiency symptoms were apparent and visible.

One week after the plant and soil samples were collected, the field received an inch of rain, and the potassium deficiency symptoms disappeared! The entire corn field is green now. It is amazing what a little water will fix.

Potassium deficiency in corn confirmed with plant and soil analysis. Potassium-deficient corn plant (left) displays chlorosis and necrosis of the outer leaf margin and wavy leaf edge. Plant and soil samples were collected June 2021 in west central Minnesota.

Correcting the problem

So, what do you do next? Do you try to apply an in-season rescue potassium fertilizer application? You still need rain to water in any fertilizer applied to the soil surface. If you had applied an adequate amount of potassium fertilizer before planting, then the appropriate decision is to wait for rain to improve soil and fertilizer potassium availability. However, some people may not have applied enough potassium initially. In these cases, a rescue application of 60 lb/acre K2O broadcast (100 lb/acre potash, 0-0-60) followed by some rain should correct the symptoms. Do not skimp with anything less because you are already behind the eight-ball and you will need that much material to cover the soil surface adequately and affect enough individual corn plants. In NDSU research (2014-2016), an uncorrected potassium deficiency in corn could cost 20-30 bushel/acre compared to corn receiving adequate potassium fertilizer.

For liquid materials, potassium acetate and potassium thiosulfate could be dribbled between the rows, but the potassium rate will need to be similar to the dry potassium fertilizer rate and cost will likely be greater. Remember, potassium is something required in large quantities, not something corrected with a small application of 5-10 lb/acre K2O.

There is no way we could have planned for the very dry conditions that are exacerbating potassium deficiency symptoms across the region. For the future, the best preventative strategy is precision soil sampling (grid or zone) and fertilizing accordingly. It is important to identify and address those parts of fields where potassium may be limiting crop yield potential and spend fertilizer dollars where needed.

Feed Nitrate Testing in a Drought Year

Drought is an unwelcome but well-known phenomenon on the Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies. Rainfall has been sparse and scattered across the region, and high temperatures exceeding 90 to 100° F (32 to 38° C) have already caused stress to young crops. These same stresses have also wracked pastures, prompting livestock producers to think about alternative feed options for cattle. Believe it or not, we have already received questions from farmers and ranchers about decisions to cut and bale or graze small grain fields for livestock feed.

When drought-stressed annual crops (e.g., wheat, barley, oat, corn) are cut or grazed, producers must exercise caution about livestock nitrate poisoning when feeding these forages. Drought-stressed crops often accumulate nitrate because plant uptake of nitrate exceeds plant growth and nitrogen utilization. Nitrate is usually concentrated in lower plant parts (lower stem or stalk). When livestock, particularly sheep and cattle, ingest forages with a high nitrate content, nitrate poisoning can occur if large amounts of nitrate convert to nitrite in their digestive system.

Dry soil conditions and high soil nitrate levels favor plant accumulation of nitrate. There is one upside to very dry soil conditions: Some soils may not have had enough soil water to convert all nitrogen fertilizer from the ammonium form to the nitrate form, especially if nitrogen fertilizer was applied in a concentrated band that delays nitrification. Therefore, this may limit the amount of soil nitrate available for plant uptake and accumulation. Regardless, there is still variation across the landscape, and a feed nitrate analysis is the best method to assess livestock nitrate poisoning risk.

When collecting plant material for nitrate analysis, collect the plant parts that the livestock will eat. If plant material will be grazed, recall that lower plant parts contain higher nitrate concentrations; monitor grazing height closely. If plant material will be cut and baled, you should collect plant material above the cutter bar height. Alternatively, plant material can be sampled with a hay probe after being baled.

For the fastest turnaround, submit feed materials for nitrate analysis using a plant sample bag. Write “feed nitrate” for crop choice and select “nitrate-nitrogen” as the analysis option. 

AGVISE Laboratories offers next-day turnaround for feed nitrate analysis. Rapid turnaround on nitrate analysis is important for producers debating to cut and bale or graze small grains or corn as livestock feed.  We also provide livestock water analysis, which includes total dissolved solids, nitrate, and sulfate, to assess livestock drinking water quality. Please call AGVISE staff in Northwood, ND (701-587- 6010) or Benson, MN (320-843-4109) with questions about nitrate, feed/hay quality, or water analysis. We can send you sampling supplies if needed.

AGVISE Laboratories Online Supplies Store

Protect Nitrogen Fertilizer from Ammonia Volatilization

Recent rain and snow have brought much-needed precipitation to the northern Great Plains and upper Midwest regions. Some degree of drought conditions stretch from Alberta to Iowa, and agronomists and farmers are wondering the best ways to protect spring-applied nitrogen as the planting season continues. How much nitrogen might I lose if I cannot incorporate it? Does vertical tillage incorporate fertilizer enough? We have compiled some resources to help answer those questions.

There are three ways to lose fertilizer nitrogen: ammonia volatilization, denitrification, and nitrate leaching. In excessively wet soils, denitrification and nitrate leaching are a concern. However, for spring-applied nitrogen, ammonia volatilization is the main concern with dry soil conditions and unpredictable rainfall forecasts.

When you apply ammoniacal fertilizers (e.g. anhydrous ammonia, urea, UAN, ammonium sulfate) to the soil surface without sufficient incorporation, some amount of free ammonia (NH3) can escape to the atmosphere. Sufficient incorporation with tillage or precipitation is needed to safely protect that nitrogen investment below the soil surface. With dry soil conditions, this is important to remember because we must balance the need to protect nitrogen fertilizer while conserving soil water for seed germination and emergence.

Ammonia volatilization risk depends on soil and environmental factors (Table 1) and the nitrogen fertilizer source (Table 2). Typically, we are most concerned about ammonia volatilization for surface-applied urea or UAN. It is not easy to estimate how much nitrogen might be lost, and sometimes the losses can be substantial. Although you cannot change the soil type or weather forecast, you do have control over the nitrogen source and application method (Table 2) to protect your nitrogen investment.

Practices to reduce ammonia volatilization, in order of most effective: 

  • Apply urea in subsurface bands at least 3 inches below the soil surface. A shallow urea band (1 or 2 inches) acts like a slow-release anhydrous ammonia band, and nobody should ever apply anhydrous ammonia that shallow.
  • If nitrogen will be broadcast with incorporation, make sure the fertilizer is sufficiently incorporated at least 2 inches below the soil surface to ensure good soil coverage. A chisel plow or field cultivator is usually needed. The popularity of high-speed disks (vertical tillage) has led some people to think that it counts as a meaningful incorporation event. In reality, it just moves soil and crop residue around on the soil surface without really incorporating any fertilizer. Take a look after you run across the field and you will see white urea granules everywhere. There are soil-applied herbicide incorporation videos from the 1970s that show what a thorough incorporation job really requires.
  • If nitrogen will be broadcast without incorporation, try to time the fertilizer application right before rain (at least 0.3 inch of precipitation). Soils with good crop residue cover (no-till) may require more rain to sufficiently move urea or UAN into the soil surface.
  • If no rain is forecasted in the near future, consider applying a urease inhibitor on urea or UAN to provide temporary protection until rain arrives. The university research-proven urease inhibitor is NBPT, available in products like Agrotain (Koch) and its generic cousins. For generic products, make sure the active ingredient rate is 1.3 to 1.8 lb NBPT per ton of urea to ensure effective NBPT activity and protection. NBPT begins to breakdown after 7 to 14 days. In addition, it is important to remember that nitrification inhibitors like nitrapyrin and DCD do not protect against ammonia volatilization.

These practices should also be considered if you will be applying in-season nitrogen to corn or wheat later in the summer. it is always best to apply nitrogen below the soil surface, such as injected anhydrous ammonia or coulter-injected UAN, to protect nitrogen fertilizer. For surface-applied urea or UAN, you will want to time the fertilizer application just before a rainfall or consider NBPT to extend the rainfall window.

Resources on ammonia volatilization and urease inhibitors

Nitrogen extenders and additives for field crops, NDSU

How long can NBPT-treated urea remain on the soil surface without loss?, NDSU

Should you add inhibitors to your sidedress nitrogen application?, University of Minnesota

Split the risk with in-season nitrogen, AGVISE

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.