Protecting Your Nitrogen Fertilizer Investment

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 precipitation 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.

Helpful resources: 

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? (Univ. Minnesota)

Split the risk with in-season nitrogen (AGVISE Laboratories)

Starter Fertilizer: Right Place, Right Rate

Starter fertilizer placed with or near the seed is essential for vigorous early season growth in grass crops such as corn and wheat. We plant these crops early because we know vigorous early season growth is important to high yields. Early seeding also means cold soils. Starter fertilizer is an insurance policy to get the crop off to a fast start despite cold soil conditions.

Each year we receive many questions about starter fertilizer placement and rates. These questions are the result of growers wanting to plant as many acres per day as possible, take advantage of more efficient banded P fertilizer, and of course lower fertilizer costs.

The two most common questions we get are “What is highest rate of starter fertilizer I can apply with the seed?” and “What is the lowest rate of starter fertilizer I can apply with the seed” and still get a starter effect?  South Dakota State University (SDSU) made a downloadable spreadsheet that calculates the maximum seed-safe fertilizer rate (Figure 1). The spreadsheet will ask for the crop choice, fertilizer product, seed opener width, row spacing, tolerable stand loss, soil texture, and soil water content. The spreadsheet calculations are based on greenhouse and field studies from SDSU.

Seed Safety Calculator from SDSU for Starter Fertilizer Article

Figure 1. Fertilizer Seed Decision Aid from South Dakota State University. You can download the spreadsheet here

University research shows, that to achieve the full starter effect, a fertilizer granule or droplet must be within 1.5 to 2.0 inches of each seed. If the fertilizer granule or droplet is more than 1.5 to 2.0 inches away from the seed, the starter effect is lost. To show the effect fertilizer rate has on the distance between each seed and fertilizer particle/droplet, we at AGVISE created visual displays.  Below is an example of wheat seeded in 7” rows, with 30 lb/a P2O5 (57 lb MAP) banded and corn seeded in 30” rows with 30 lb/a P2O5 (7.5 gallons 10-34-0) banded (Figure 2). To see more displays with several crops, fertilizer rates, and row spacing, go to the link shown below (many thanks to John Heard with Manitoba Agriculture for helping with these displays).  These displays help visualize why lower starter fertilizer rates just won’t cut it for the full starter effect. Remember, starter fertilizer rates must be high enough to keep fertilizer particles/drops within 1.5 to 2.0 inches of each seed (link to all of the figures on several crops:

Starter fertilizer demonstration example for starter fertilizer article

Figure 2. Two examples from our starter fertilizer displays series. Click here to see more crops and rates.

In addition to starter fertilizer, additional P and K fertilizer is needed to prevent nutrient mining. Nutrient mining, or applying less total fertilizer than the crop removal rate, causes P & K soil test levels to decline over time. Many broadleaf crops are sensitive to seed placed fertilizer so only low rates of starter fertilizer can be used.  In contrast, most grasses can tolerate much higher rates of P fertilizer with the seed (Table 1).  If you want your starter P fertilizer rate to keep up with crop removal across your rotation, you will need to apply higher rates to crops like wheat and corn.  The safe rate of P fertilizer with wheat seed is much higher than crop removal.  This allows you to do some catch up on P for years when you grew soybeans or canola and could only put a low rate of starter P with the seed.  If you cannot keep up with P removal in your rotation with normal starter fertilizer rates, you will need to apply additional P in a mid-row band or broadcast application at some point in the rotation.

Table 1. Seed-safe fertilizer rates may not meet crop removal. The seed-safe limit is based on 1-inch disk or knife opener and 7.5-inch row spacing for air-seeded crops and 30-inch row spacing for corn. Phosphorus (P) balance: Seed-safe limit (lb/acre P2O5) minus crop P removal (lb/acre P2O5). A negative P balance indicates the seed-safe limit does not meet crop removal, which may decrease soil test P.

Starter fertilizer is an important part of any crop nutrition plan. Having the right resources will help in making the best decisions for you or your growers.  Below are additional links to information on seed-placed fertilizer.

Using banded fertilizer for corn production (University of Minnesota)

Guidelines for safe rates of fertilizer applied with the seed (Saskatchewan Agriculture, Natural Resources and Industry)

Corn response to phosphorus starter fertilizer in North Dakota (North Dakota State University)

Phosphorus fertilization of wheat significantly improved yield and crop vigor (North Dakota State University)

Wheat, barley and canola response to phosphate fertilizer (Alberta)

Starter Fertilizer Display: How low can YOU go?

When profits are squeezed, more farmers are asking about optimal starter fertilizer rates and how low starter fertilizer rates can be. These questions are the result of wanting to keep fertilizer costs down, to plant as many acres per day as possible, and to take advantage of more efficient, lower rates of banded phosphorus fertilizer compared to higher rates of broadcast phosphorus fertilizer.

To illustrate the role of starter fertilizer rates and seed placement, we put together displays showing the distance between fertilizer granules or droplets at various rates and row spacings. You can see several pictures with canola, corn, soybean, sugar beet, and wheat. We greatly thank John Heard with Manitoba Agriculture for helping with the displays.

The displays show the normal seed spacing for several crops with different dry or liquid fertilizer rates alongside the seed. These displays help visualize the distance between the seed and fertilizer at several rates. University research shows that to achieve the full starter effect, a fertilizer granule or droplet must be within 1.5-2.0 inches of each seed. If the fertilizer granule or droplet is more than 1.5-2.0 inches away from the seed, the starter effect is lost. Some people wonder about these displays, but you can prove it to yourself pretty easily. Just run the planter partially down on a hard surface at normal planting speed. You will see what you imagine as a constant stream of liquid fertilizer, ends up being individual droplets at normal speed, especially with narrow row spacings and lower fertilizer rates.

These displays help illustrate the minimum starter fertilizer rate to maintain fertilizer placement within 1.5-2.0 inches of each seed for the full starter effect. In addition to an adequate starter fertilizer rate, additional phosphorus and potassium should be applied to prevent nutrient mining, causing soil test levels to decline in years when minimum fertilizer rates are applied.

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.

Caution: Ammonium Sulfate with Seed

Seed-placed fertilizer is a common practice to increase seedling vigor and optimize fertilizer placement and crop response. This is a popular strategy to apply phosphorus for canola, corn, and wheat. However, the seed-placed fertilizer rate cannot exceed seed safety limits, otherwise seedling germination and plant population may be reduced. Sulfur is very important in canola growth and development, so farmers often try placing ammonium sulfate (AMS) with canola seed as well! This can create big problems.

A team of agronomists and soil scientists at the University of Manitoba conducted greenhouse and field studies, examining the effect of seed-placed ammonium sulfate on canola plant population and seed yield. The plant population loss was much greater on soils with pH > 7.5 (Figure 1). The high pH soils contained calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which reacts with ammonium sulfate to create calcium sulfate (gypsum) and ammonium carbonate. The higher reaction pH of ammonium carbonate produces free ammonia (NH3). Free ammonia (NH3) in soil is toxic to living organisms and kills germinating seeds. Acute ammonia toxicity is a major concern with fertilizer materials that liberate free ammonia (NH3) in soil, such as anhydrous ammonia (82-0-0) or urea (46-0-0), ultimately reducing plant population if you are not careful with fertilizer rate and placement.

For Caution: Ammonium Sulfate with Seed post

Figure 1. Ammonium sulfate (AMS, 21-0-0-24S) included with seed-placed monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 10-52-0) reduced canola plant population. Soil carbonate content is 21% CCE and 0.5% CCE in knoll soil and hollow soil, respectively. Brandon, Manitoba.

Across the landscape, soil pH and carbonate content will vary. The well-drained lower landscape positions (swales, hollows) often have acidic to neutral pH and little carbonate. The upper landscape positions (knobs, knolls), suffering decades of soil erosion, often have high pH and ample carbonate (Figure 1). The risk of plant population loss is greater on eroded knobs where adding ammonium sulfate can create ammonia toxicity concern.

Considerable yield loss will occur if canola plant population is less than 70 plants per square meter. Even with low fertilizer rates, the interaction of seed-placed ammonium sulfate and phosphorus can greatly reduce canola plant population. In Manitoba, 25% plant population loss was observed with only 8 lb/acre S and 18 lb/acre P2O5 (Figure 2).For Caution: Ammonium Sulfate with Seed article

Figure 2. Ammonium sulfate (AMS, 21-0-0-24S) included with seed-placed monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 10-52-0) reduced canola plant population. Carman, Manitoba, 2011.

Sulfur is vital for successful canola production, but it must be applied safely. There are new air drill configurations with innovative seed and fertilizer placement options. Seed safety is paramount with seed-placed fertilizer. Ammonium sulfate should be broadcasted or banded away from seed (mid-row). Keeping ammonium sulfate away from seed will also allow you to maximize seed-placed phosphorus rates and efficiency without jeopardizing seed safety.

Placing ammonium sulfate with seed should be an emergency option only. Canola plant population loss should be expected, even at low ammonium sulfate rates, on soils with pH greater than 7.5 and calcium carbonate.

Fallow Syndrome: Preventing Phosphorus Problems

Some crops that do not support mycorrhizal fungi (left to right: sugar beet, canola, radish).

Producers in the northern Great Plains and upper Midwest need to consider the risk of fallow syndrome in their crop nutrition plans. You are probably asking, what is “fallow syndrome” and why should I care? After all, summer fallow is not that common anymore! But the greater number of Prevented Planting acres in 2019 and 2020 meant that we have had many unintended fallow fields, making fallow syndrome a serious and widespread concern for the next year.

Fallow syndrome is an induced phosphorus deficiency caused by a lack of mycorrhizal fungi in soil. Some plant species, like corn and wheat, rely heavily on mycorrhizae to colonize the plant root system and help acquire important nutrients like phosphorus and zinc. If soil is lacking sufficient mycorrhizae to colonize plant roots, a case of fallow syndrome will increase phosphorus fertilizer needs and even cost crop yield potential.

Understanding mycorrhizae

Mycorrhizae fungi occur naturally in soils and readily colonize plant roots. Upon root colonization, mycorrhizae fungal filaments act as extensions of the root system and increase the soil volume available for plant water and nutrient uptake. The combined root-mycorrhizae surface area can be up to 10-fold greater than roots without mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae depend on living plant roots to support stable mycorrhizae populations. However, not all plant species host and support mycorrhizae growth. Some common field crops are non-host species and their planting results in rapid drops in mycorrhizae populations.

Summer fallow or unplanted cropland, such as Prevented Planting in 2020, is a classic example of providing no or few living plant roots in soil to maintain mycorrhizae populations. In addition, some crop species do not support mycorrhizae, such as those in the goosefoot family (sugar beet) and mustard family (canola, radish, turnip). Following a classic case of summer fallow or a non-mycorrhizae supporting crop, the mycorrhizae population in soil will quickly drop. A cover crop mix that included a grass species (e.g. barley, rye) should still support mycorrhizae and prevent fallow syndrome concerns.

Preventing fallow syndrome

The easiest prevention strategy after fallow is planting a crop species without fallow syndrome risk like soybean, canola, or sugar beet. Avoid planting susceptible crops like corn and wheat. These crops are highly dependent on mycorrhizae to acquire phosphorus, and extra starter phosphorus will be required if fallow syndrome risk is present.

To reduce fallow syndrome risk in corn or wheat, extra phosphorus fertilizer must be placed with or near the seed. Applying more broadcast phosphorus or relying on high soil test P will not prevent fallow syndrome. The starter phosphorus rate should be 20 to 40 lb/acre P2O5. In some university research trials, up to 60 lb/acre P2O5 with 2×2-band placement near the seed was needed to prevent corn yield loss to fallow syndrome.

For wheat, these phosphorus rates are typically seed safe with monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 11-52-0). Most corn planters can safely apply 20 lb/acre P2O5 (5 gal/acre ammonium polyphosphate, APP, 10-34-0) in the furrow. For medium/fine-textured soils with good soil moisture at planting, you can generally apply up to 10 gal/acre 10-34-0 (40 lb/acre P2O5) safely in the furrow at 30-inch row spacing. Higher 10-34-0 rates may exceed seed safety limits on dry soils or coarse-textured soils and require 2×2-band placement to maintain seed safety.

Complete liquid fertilizers, such as 6-24-6 or 9-18-9, are not suggested for preventing fallow syndrome. Compared to 10-34-0, the products have lower P concentration that result in less applied phosphorus, even if used at maximum seed safe rates. The extra N + K2O in “complete” liquid fertilizers increases the salt index and lowers the seed safe rate.