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)

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.