Updated Residual Soil Nitrate Trends (Variability is high this year)

The 2022 growing season may seem like a long way off, but spring will be here before we know it. In fact, many growers are already making (or have made) crop choices and seed variety decisions for 2022. One factor that must be considered when making crop and variety selections for 2022 is residual soil nitrate-nitrogen following the 2021 growing season. For many in the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies, the 2021 growing season was hot and dry, which resulted in high residual soil nitrate levels following many crops. An update on average residual nitrate levels after wheat, broken down by geography, is below (Table 1). Residual soil nitrate-nitrogen following other crops, including soybean, are also higher than average (Table 2). This highlights the importance of soil sampling, even after crops we do not typically think of leaving high residual soil nitrate behind.

The data in the tables represents a snapshot of the samples we have tested so far this fall. While the average residual soil nitrate-nitrogen for an area may be interesting to talk about, it is not a replacement for actual soil test results from you or your growers’ fields. The data shows that over 30% of the wheat fields in many areas (see the right-hand column of the table) test over 100 lb/acre soil nitrate (0-24 inch depth). Droughts like 1988 and 2021 are very uncommon and leave us in situations that we are not used to dealing with. Using an average soil nitrate level from a region to decide an N rate on an individual field would be like deciding to apply an insecticide on every acre of the farm without even looking at each field to see if the insect is present. You need actual soil test data on each field to make informed decisions.

Table 1. Residual nitrate trends as of Sept. 17, 2021 from more than 20,000 soil samples taken after wheat. Regions with less than 100 soil samples are not included in the table.

Table 2. Residual nitrate trends as of Sept. 17, 2021 for crops other than wheat. Regions with less than 100 soil samples for each respective crop are not included in the table.

High Fertilizer Prices

According to the September 15, 2021 DTN fertilizer price survey, retail fertilizer prices continue to rise. The average price per pound of nitrogen by fertilizer product is $0.61/lb N for urea, $0.46 lb/N for anhydrous ammonia, and $0.66/lb N for UAN-28. This represents a 55%, 73%, and 71% increase in price compared to prices for the same fertilizers this time last year. Long story short, fertilizer is expensive. High residual soil nitrate following wheat may help reduce input costs in 2022, as long as you know what the residual soil nitrate in your fields is and take advantage of it by growing a crop that requires nitrogen fertilizer. If you have a soil nitrate test of 80 lb/acre (0-24 inch) after wheat, that is about 50 lb more than normal carry over. The extra 50 lb/acre soil nitrate is worth $30.00/acre (based on the current urea price).

Brent Jaenisch Joins AGVISE Technical Support Team

AGVISE Laboratories is proud to announce that Brent Jaenisch has joined the AGVISE team as an Agronomist. Brent provides sales and technical support to AGVISE customers throughout Minnesota, South Dakota, and the northern Corn Belt. You will soon see his contributions in AGVISE newsletters and seminars. Brent is based at the Benson, MN laboratory.

Brent is a Minnesota native and grew up on a diversified grain and livestock operation outside Maynard, MN. Brent took his passion for farming and agriculture to school, obtaining a degree in Agronomy from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, then a M.S. and Ph.D. in Agronomy from Kansas State University. Brent’s master’s degree research investigated wheat yield response to different fertilizer treatments and varying agronomic practices. His doctoral research evaluated wheat management practices in Kansas where he spent countless hours surveying wheat growers across Kansas and understanding the contribution of wheat yield components to wheat yield.

Brent enjoys interacting with agronomists and farmers, and has extensive experience leading and instructing research teams. Brent spent three summers of his undergraduate experience interning with CHS and Winfield in Minnesota, where he built lasting relationships with growers and retail agronomists. During his graduate school career, Brent trained, coordinated, and lead teams of new agronomists to complete field work and research tasks across the state of Kansas, which is no small feat!

Brent’s practical approach to agronomy, passion for teaching, and knack for building meaningful relationships make him an excellent addition to the AGVISE technical support team. We are excited to have him on the team and can’t wait for you to meet him.

Understanding high residual soil nitrate-nitrogen following drought

Soil testing after small grains is well underway, and we are seeing higher than normal soil nitrate-nitrogen levels, as expected. Crop yields have varied from much below average to surprisingly decent in some locations. It is easy to understand why residual soil nitrate-nitrogen is high in fields where the 2021 drought was severe and crop yield was very low. It is a little harder to understand how some fields, that produced decent crop yields, can also have higher than normal soil nitrate-nitrogen as well. Given the variability we are seeing across the region, the only way to know whether or not your fields have higher-than-expected residual soil nitrate-nitrogen or not is to sample and test these fields.

We will attempt to answer some of the questions about “Where did all the soil nitrate-nitrogen come from?” and “What should we do next year?” farther down.

2021 Residual Soil Nitrate-Nitrogen Summary, Early Report (First 6,500 Fields)

AGVISE has tested over 6,500 soil samples from wheat fields across the region so far. We usually wait to share the early soil nitrate-nitrogen summary until September, but we have been getting a lot of questions already. The table shows the average soil nitrate-nitrogen (0-24 inch soil profile) and the percentage of soil samples in each category for several areas of Manitoba, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. As you can see, there is considerably more residual soil nitrate-nitrogen than the long-term average of 30 to 45 lb/acre nitrate-N in a good year. In some areas, over 30 to 50% of soil samples have more than 80 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch) remaining after wheat.

Reasons for high residual soil nitrate-nitrogen in a drought with low crop yield

  • Lower crop nitrogen uptake and use (low crop yield)
  • No soil nitrogen loss from leaching or denitrification
  • Warmer than average soil temperatures in the early growing season when soil water supply was better, resulting in above nitrogen mineralization from soil organic matter (can be 40 to 100 lb/acre N)
  • Nitrogen fertilizer near the soil surface was positionally unavailable because there was no soil water for plant roots to obtain it

Where did high residual soil nitrate-nitrogen come from in fields that had decent crop yields?

In 2021, crop water use demanded a lot of stored soil water uptake from deeper in the soil profile. If the crop was able to root down deep enough and fast enough, the crop found additional water in the subsoil along with nitrate-nitrogen from previous years. With the extra water and nitrate found in the deep subsoil (below 24 inches), the resulting crop yield surprised many farmers and agronomists. Just because we do not routinely collect soil samples below the 24-inch soil depth in most areas does not mean there is zero nitrate-nitrogen down there. After a series of wet years, the amount of nitrate-nitrogen that can accumulate in the lower soil profile can be considerable. In a drought year, when all crops were forced to root deeper just to survive, the deep nitrate-nitrogen makes a significant contribution to the total plant nitrogen uptake.

What about the nitrogen fertilizer that was applied last spring and all the nitrate-nitrogen in the topsoil (0-6 inch soil profile)?

With the very dry topsoil conditions, plant roots grew deeper in search of water. Since plant roots obtain most nitrate-nitrogen through mass flow in soil water, this situation left fertilizer nitrogen “stranded” and positionally unavailable near the soil surface. Although this was bad for this year’s crop, the “stranded” nitrogen is in a good position for next year’s crop. We experienced the same phenomenon in 2017 and 2018, after some areas had experienced a severe drought. There were fields with decent crop yields and considerable “stranded” nitrogen, just like this year.

Strategies to utilize high residual soil nitrate-nitrogen for next year

With so many wheat fields with high residual soil nitrate-nitrogen this fall, you may want to consider changing your crop rotation. Severe droughts like 1988 and 2021 are not very common, so we need to think outside the box. It is common for wheat to be followed in the crop rotation with a legume like soybean or dry edible bean. However, the drought has left you with a lot of residual soil nitrate-nitrogen, and nitrogen fertilizer prices are staggeringly high right now. If you have 100 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch soil profile), that is $60 per acre of “free” nitrogen fertilizer at current urea prices ($550/ton). In addition, excess soil nitrate-nitrogen can also make soybean iron deficiency chlorosis (IDC) worse on moderate to high IDC risk soils. Do you want to sacrifice $60 per acre of “free” nitrogen AND risk lowering soybean yield due to more severe soybean IDC?

Drought can be sporadic or continue for multiple years. You may want to consider more short-season crops in the crop rotation that require less water and can produce well in drier years (remember, we used most of the stored soil water in 2021). Short-season crops to consider include winter wheat, spring wheat, durum wheat, barley, canola, etc. It is also important to consider the current price for each crop. With high crop prices right now and promising futures prices in 2022, you could lock in some good prices for next year. Although two consecutive years of the same crop (e.g. wheat) is not ideal for disease management, there was very little disease in 2021, and it might allow some different weed control options for future crops in the rotation. All in all, a drought brings opportunities to think outside the box.

 

Sampling Fields for SCN

Soybean cyst nematode (SCN) is a microscopic, parasitic worm that attacks the roots of susceptible soybean and dry edible bean, causing unseen or unexplained yield losses. Soybean and dry edible bean are naturally susceptible to SCN, but through plant breeding, most soybeans have some level of resistance, varying in level from good to poor. The most common source of resistance to SCN in soybean is PI88788, which is about 30 years old, and many soybean growing areas have SCN populations that are becoming resistant to this source. The Peking source is a very effective SCN resistance source but is only available in less than 5% of all soybean varieties.

Soybean cyst nematode cysts each harbor hundreds of eggs. Cysts and eggs of SCN can survive in the soil and remain viable for many years even without a soybean or dry bean host. Any activity that moves soil around will move SCN, meaning that areas with a history of soybean production likely have or will have this pest. Soybean cyst nematodes were first reported in Minnesota in 1978, South Dakota in 1995, North Dakota in 2003, and Manitoba in 2019.

During the growing season, the developing SCN cysts containing the eggs can be seen on susceptible plant roots, as seen in the picture below. To get an accurate assessment of the infestation level of the field, you need to collect soil samples and submit them to a laboratory to get a measure of the SCN egg count.

Photo of soybean roots with SCN cysts. Photo courtesy of NDSU.

Sampling strategies

If you have never tested for SCN before, you will want to sample fields intended for soybean or dry bean for the presence of SCN and gather a baseline SCN egg count. The best time to collect this sample is at the end of the growing season, right before harvest or just after (before any tillage). Sampling in the fall coincides with the highest egg levels in the soil and typically falls in the months of September and October. Collect 10-20 soil cores (6 to 8 inch soil depth) right in the soybean row from areas of the field that are likely to have SCN. Since SCN is a soil-borne pathogen, it moves wherever contaminated soil can enter the field. Therefore, the areas you will want to collect samples from are field entry points where soil can be transferred on equipment and tires, places where blown soil accumulates (e.g., fence lines), ditches and flooded areas, and locations in fields with consistently low soybean yields. Mix the soil cores together and take a subsample to fill a soil sample bag.

If you know you have SCN, you will want to sample soybean fields twice during the year: once in June to get an initial SCN egg count and then again in the fall to get a final SCN egg count. The early and late SCN samples allow you to measure if SCN populations are being effectively controlled (i.e., no increase in SCN egg count) or if the soybean variety SCN resistance source is failing (i.e., SCN egg count increases). Choose a single point in the soybean field and collect 8-10 soil cores (6 to 8 inch soil depth) taken within the soybean row at that spot. Mix the cores together and fill a regular paper soil sample bag. Mark that point with a flag and collect its GPS coordinates. Come back to that exact spot in the fall and collect a second sample. This will help you assess how your SCN management strategies, including the soybean variety SCN resistance source and soybean seed treatment, are working in the field.

Preparing and sending SCN samples to AGVISE Laboratories

You can submit SCN samples via paper form or online through AGVISOR. AGVISE provides special paper forms for SCN sampling and special stickers for online AGVISOR submission at no charge. The bright yellow forms and stickers help us sort samples and ensure samples submitted for SCN analysis are not dried and ground. All SCN samples analyzed by AGVISE Laboratories are analyzed at the Benson, MN laboratory. You can either send the SCN samples directly to the Benson Laboratory (see addresses below) or to the Northwood Laboratory, where they will be routed to Benson for analysis. AGVISE Laboratories reports SCN results in “eggs/100 cc” of soil and provides interpretation on our reports informed by university research.

Helpful links:

Soybean Cyst Nematode, ISU

Plant Disease Management: Soybean Cyst Nematode, NDSU

Soybean Cyst Nematode (SCN), UMN

Soybean Cyst  Nematode in South Dakota: History, Biology, and Management, SDSU

The SCN Coalition

 

Tips for Soil Sampling in Dry Conditions

Soil sampling in dry conditions can be difficult. The ground is hard, fields are dry, and getting a consistent soil core depth can take more time than usual. To help you take the best soil samples this fall, we’ve put together some tips and tricks for sampling in dry soil conditions that, when implemented, will help you save time and frustration in the field.

Soil sampling equipment

AGVISE Laboratories has provided soil sampling equipment for over 40 years. Our hydraulic soil sampling system will enable you to get high-quality soil cores, even in hard, dry soils. The electric-hydraulic power unit paired with easy-to-change Quicktach probes will make adapting to challenging soil sampling conditions simple and easy. You can find more about our equipment on our online store.

Best soil probe body

The heavy-duty (HD) probe body is made from chromoly steel. This thick-walled, hard steel probe body will resist bending under hard, dry, or frozen soil conditions (compared to softer stainless steel). The HD probe body comes in two options: solid and slotted. If the topsoil is powder dry, it is best to use the HD solid probe body, as powder-dry soil may fall out of the slot. Stainless steel probe bodies work great in most situations but in hard, dry soils the stainless-steel probe body may bend more easily than the HD probe body.

Best soil probe tip

AGVISE Laboratories carries two tips for the HD probe body. The HD “dry tip” has a sharp cutting edge and large opening (3/4-inch) that works great in hard, dry soils. It is our leading recommendation for such conditions. If you are soil sampling fine-textured clay soils, even under dry conditions, the HD “wet tip” may also work well for you because there is usually a little moisture remaining at the lower end of the 24” soil profile. It is a good idea to have both the HD dry and HD wet tips with you in the sampling rig. As soil conditions change, you can use the soil probe tip that gives you the best quality soil cores. 

Solving common very dry soil sampling problems

What do I do if the soil probe comes up empty?

Under very dry soil conditions, sometimes the soil probe comes up empty because soil falls out the bottom of the probe. One trick to overcome this is to push the probe all the way to 24-inch (or to the end of its cycle), then lift the probe up a few inches and push it back down to 24-inch. This creates a slight plug at the bottom of the soil core that prevents soil from falling out the bottom. It seems like such a simple solution, but it works!

What if I can’t get full 24-inch soil cores and the soil probe tip has a hard plug in it, which is preventing soil from flowing into the probe body?

You are probably using a tip with an opening diameter that is too small. Dry soil does not compress well and sometimes it will not flow through a smaller tip opening. The HD dry tip has a 3/4-inch that is large enough to allow dry soil to flow into the soil probe.

Will WD-40 help me get better quality soil cores if the soil is dry and hard?

There is no benefit to using a lubricant such as WD-40 under very dry soil conditions. Dry soil is much less likely to plug the soil probe than wet soil. If you are running into a few plugged tips with the HD dry tip, try the HD wet tip. You are probably finding a layer of wet soil deeper in the soil profile. The HD wet tip has a recessed lip that will prevent plugging and will handle this layer better than the HD dry tip.

What if I can’t get a full 6-24-inch soil core? Should I change anything in the information I submit to the laboratory? 

If you are unable to get a full second soil depth (6-24-inch soil core), it is important that the information you submit to the laboratory matches the soil depth you actually collected. Mobile soil nutrients like nitrate-nitrogen are tested on the second soil depth and results are calculated based on soil core length. If the soil core is shorter than what was written on the submission form or submitted in AGVISOR, the soil test nitrate-nitrogen result will be overestimated.

Preventing fires when soil sampling

No one wants to start a fire while in the field. Unfortunately, driving anything with an engine over dry crop residue creates a fire risk. John Lee, soil sampling and testing veteran, has seen this happen firsthand. “I started a corn stalk field on fire when I was soil sampling one of my dad’s fields in college,” said Lee. “The fire was put out quickly, but I was embarrassed that I did not have anything in the truck with me to put the fire out.”

After visiting with several customers with many years’ experience soil sampling in dry conditions, we compiled a list of practices that can reduce the chance of fire while soil sampling.

Fire suppressing items to keep in your soil sampling rig

Remember that most fires start under the truck where straw or chaff accumulates on exhaust pipes, mufflers, etc. Your firefighting equipment needs to be long enough to reach these areas if a fire does start.

  1. Large ABC type fire extinguisher with hose
    • 10 lb size costs ~$70.00; large 20 lb size costs ~$130.00
  2. Water tank with 20-ft hose
    • A small water tank (~25 gallons) with a 20-ft hose will allow you to get to any location on the truck to put out a fire. One sampler suggested using a small spray tank system designed for ATVs. The systems cost roughly  $350-$450, are self-contained, and run from a battery. You may already have a small weed spraying system you can put in the box of your soil sampling truck to use as a firefighting system.

Practices to reduce fire risk before one starts

  1. Soil sample in the morning when it is cool and overnight dew is still present
  2. Talk with your clients about reducing stubble height. This should not be an issue with drought-stressed crops because the stubble height will be shorter than normal.
  3. Keep as much ground clearance under your truck as possible to prevent chaff buildup on the frame, axels, and crossmembers.
  4. Inspect your truck at the end of each day to make sure straw and chaff are not accumulating in places that could start a fire the next day. Use an air compressor to blow out all the nooks and crannies accumulating crop residue.
  5. Stay alert for any hints of smoke while soil sampling. At the first hint of smoke, find where the smoke is originating quickly and extinguish it, or get out of the field and into a safe area to figure out where the smoke is coming from.

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)

Save Time and Avoid Mistakes by Using AGVISOR to Submit Soil Samples Online

AGVISE Laboratories is always trying to make soil sampling easier. Since 2011, AGVISE customers have enjoyed submitting soil samples online through our AGVISOR platform. AGVISOR is the online platform that allows you to submit soil samples (conventional, grid/zone, and soybean cyst nematode samples); save grower and field information (so you don’t have to fill it in by hand on paper forms); and set default crop fertilizer guidelines. With online submission, you simply submit the sample information online and print barcode reference number stickers to place on each soil sample bag (like below). There is no more handwriting on soil sample bags or forms anymore!

Picture of samples with online sticker labels for AGVISOR article

With the online AGVISOR platform, organizing your sampling operation is easy. You can save time by submitting soil samples ahead of time and printing reference number stickers before the fall soil sampling rush begins. If you are working with a third-party sampler, you can submit samples online and then email a PDF of the barcode reference stickers to the sampler, allowing them to print the stickers at their location.

In addition to submitting samples online, the AGVISOR platform allows you to view, print, and save soil test reports. This means you can save soil test reports and send them as PDFs to growers. AGVISOR also allows you to change crop choice, yield goal, and fertilizer guideline type (broadcast vs. band). The flexibility of the platform makes it easy to keep up with changes that inevitably happen in farming.

If you have any questions on how to access AGVISOR or need help navigating the online submission and results platform, please give one of our Laboratories (Northwood 701-587-6010; Benson 320-843-4109) a call and our technical staff will be happy to help you.

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.

Plant Sampling Basics – Sampling, storing, and shipping plant samples

Plant sampling season is in full swing. Agronomists submit plant samples for analysis for a number of reasons: to confirm visible nutrient deficiency symptoms, to detect “hidden hungers”, and to monitor or fine-tune fertilizer plans. For whatever reason you plan to take plant samples, here is a quick refresher on sampling, storing, and shipping plant samples to AGVISE Laboratories.

Sampling

Collecting the correct plant part is critical for interpreting plant analysis results. Make sure to identify the current plant growth stage and follow the directions for that specific crop and growth stage, displayed on the back of the AGVISE plant sample bag. Do you need AGVISE plant sample bags? You can request them here. If you are sampling a crop not listed on the plant sample bag, please call one of our laboratories for instructions.

 

Plant sampling instructions on the back of AGVISE Laboratories plant sample bag. Please use an AGVISE Laboratories bag to submit plant samples for analysis. We send them to AGVISE customers at no charge. Request them here.

Collect the number of plants or leaves indicated in the instructions. This ensures you have a good sample and that we have enough plant material at the laboratory to analyze. About 2 cups of plant material are typically enough.

Roughly 2 cups of plant material (above) are what we require to complete the laboratory analysis.

Storing – Plant Sample Care

  • Brush off excess soil from plant material before placing it in the bag.
  • PLEASE use AGVISE plant sample bags to submit samples. The backside has the required submission form.
  • If you do not have an AGVISE plant sample bag, use a paper bag with holes poked in for ventilation.
  • DO NOT use plastic bags. Plastic bags trap moisture, increasing the likelihood of plant material decomposition during storage and transit.
  • If you are unable to ship plant samples to the laboratory immediately, store them in a refrigerator (do not freeze).
  • It is okay for plant samples to sit outside of a refrigerator in a ventilated bag.
  • Ensure all plant samples have your AGVISE account number in the submitter section. If you do not have an account number, please include your name, phone number, and address on the sample bag.

Shipping – United States Customers

United States customers can send their plant samples to either AGVISE laboratory. Shipping addresses for both are listed at the end of this email. You can ship samples to us via your preferred parcel carrier (e.g. USPS, UPS, FedEx, Spee-Dee, etc.). The sooner the sample arrives at the laboratory after being collected, the better. If you are sending multiple samples together in a box, do not pack samples too tightly in the box; leave room for some airflow.

Shipping – Canadian Customers

Canadian customers can drop off plant samples at any of the four Manitoba AGVISE dropbox locations: Portage la Prairie, Carman, Altona, or Winkler (see location info here). During the summer, the AGVISE route truck picks up samples from these locations on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It is best to place your sample(s) in the dropbox the night before the route truck is scheduled. As long as the plant sample bag is ventilated, the sample will be okay sitting in the dropbox overnight. Samples dropped off in Winkler and Portage la Prairie can be placed inside refrigerators at the dropbox locations.

If you are located farther away from the Manitoba dropbox locations, please send your plant samples by Purolator ONLY to AGVISE Laboratories, 380 Kimberly Road, Winkler, MB R6W 0H7.

Additional information on sampling, storing, and shipping plant samples to AGVISE Laboratories can be found in the AGVISE Plant Sampling Guide.

Please contact us if you have any questions on plant sampling and analysis or need any supplies.