Soil Nitrogen Trends – Fall 2023: Some Up, Some Down

The 2023 drought was an all-too-soon reminder of the widespread 2021 drought. It covered much of the upper Midwest, Great Plains, and Canadian Prairies. From previous experience with droughts, we expected that residual soil nitrate-N following crops would be higher than normal, caused by the drought and reduced crop yields. The first wheat fields that were soil tested in August and September confirmed our expectation that residual soil nitrate-N was already trending higher than normal. Yet, some regions were spared the drought and received above-average rainfall, and achieved record-setting crop yields. For these regions, the amount of residual soil nitrate-N after high-yielding crops was near or below average. 

The 2023 AGVISE soil test summary data highlights the great variability following the drought. The median amount of soil nitrate-nitrogen across the region was higher than the long-term average following wheat. Over 28% of wheat fields had more than 60 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch) remaining. Yet, another 17% of wheat fields had less than 20 lb/acre nitrate-N remaining, suggesting either lost crop yield or protein due to insufficient nitrogen nutrition. For any given farm, the great variability in residual soil nitrate-N across all acres makes choosing one single nitrogen fertilizer rate impossible for next year, and soil testing is the only way to decide that right rate for each field.

Through zone soil sampling, we are also able to identify that residual soil nitrate-nitrogen can vary considerably within the same field. This makes sense because we know that some areas of the field produced a fair or good yield, leaving behind less soil nitrate, while other areas produced very poorly and left behind much more soil nitrate. These differences across the landscape are driven by soil texture, soil organic matter, and stored soil water as well as specific problems like soil salinity or low soil pH (aluminum toxicity). Although the regional residual soil nitrate-nitrogen trends were higher overall, it is truly through zone soil sampling that we can begin to make sense of the field variability that drives crop productivity and determine the right fertilizer rate for next year.

For fields that have not been soil tested yet, there is still time to collect soil samples in winter. Nobody wants to experience another drought, but this kind of weather reminds us how important soil nitrate testing is every year for producers in the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. Each year, AGVISE summarizes soil test data for soil nutrients and properties in our major trade regions of the United States and Canada. For more soil test summary data and other crops, please view our soil test summaries online: