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N-rich strips to offer precision nutrient management

As wheat producers prepare for next season's crop, advanced technology is offering the opportunity to maximize a vital crop input--nitrogen fertilizer.

With grain prices declining this past summer and constant unpredictable fertilizer prices, farmers are looking for ways to save money while maximizing their yield potential with the use of nitrogen.

"The biggest effect of poor nitrogen application is financial," said Kent Martin, certified crop advisor and southwest area crops and soils specialist at Kansas State University. "Over-application costs money that will likely not be recuperated, but under-application restricts yields and decreases gross income. The trick is to get it right time after time."

Farmers face a tough decision when pennies need to be pinched. While they know their fields need fertilizer, many farmers will opt out of applying nitrogen to reduce crop input costs.

However, by not applying enough nitrogen farmers can expect to lose $12 to $25 per acre depending on the cost of fertilizer and current prices of grain, said Brian Arnall, assistant professor and precision nutrient management extension specialist at Oklahoma State University.

According to KSU, a recent survey showed farmers over-fertilize by assuming their soil consists of constant residual nitrate levels, which in fact most soils consist of high residual nitrate levels.

When farmers study their crops' needs and potential benefits, they have a better chance of maximizing their inputs rather than misjudging the needs for that particular crop during that season, Martin said.

Currently, producers are trying to find ways for their yield potential to be maximized. As a result, many producers over-apply nitrogen fertilizer.

Winter wheat data produced by the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service verifies that the levels of nitrogen change each year. In addition, the yield response to the fertilizer is also unpredictable each crop season.

Rates for fertilizer are highly variable depending on location, crop and season, Martin said.

According to Arnall, the average producer is only losing yield because of poor nitrogen management one out of every 10 years. Most of the producers he works with apply more fertilizer than actually needed to produce a quality crop.

Maximizing use of nitrogen fertilizer

Today, producers make operational decisions based on tradition, while trying to save the most amount of money as possible. With the advanced technology available, producers are learning that investing a little money can save them a lot in the long run.

"Unfortunately, most crop input decisions are made upon tradition," said Jeff Edwards, assistant professor and small grains extension specialist at OSU. "Farmers could be more profitable by utilizing soil tests and sensor-based nitrogen management."

According to OSU, nitrogen rich strips offer wheat growers a more precise evaluation of the level of nitrogen in their soil. Although N-rich strips have been around since 1990, OSU has developed different versions to optimize application rates with the ease of visual evaluation.

"When the N-rich strips are used with wheat, they are applied at preplant up to one month after sowing," Arnall said. "The N-rich strips are beneficial as it is similar to a midseason checkup. Especially with winter wheat having such a long period between planting and when the plant needs the majority of nitrogen."

After the crop has emerged, the N-rich strips are monitored for differences and at top-dress time the soil is sensed and a nitrogen recommendation is made.

The advanced technology was developed to make nitrogen management easier for producers. Therefore, if the N-rich strips can be seen producers need to apply the correct amount of nitrogen. If they are not visible then there is enough nitrogen available for the crop to develop properly.

"N-rich strips are not about increasing yield or reducing the amount of nutrients applied, but simply, getting the proper rate for that field in that particular year," Arnall said.

Many farmers who implement the N-rich strips in their operations may not have the largest yields to talk about at the coffee shop, but by avoiding over-application they are saving money in the long run.

One producer who works with Arnall figured up the time it took to apply and sensor the technology as well as the money he saved, at $800 per hour of his time.

"The cost of an N-rich strip is very small compared to applying extra nitrogen and time to make a pass across the field," Arnall said.

According to OSU, using the N-rich strips can increase the profits of wheat by $10 and corn by $17 per acre.

Sensor-based nutrient management gives producers the ability to evaluate crops during the growing season and make decisions as opposed to guessing the correct fertilizer rate before the season even begins.

The past few years, producers from a variety of states and countries, including Canada and Australia, are using sensor-based nutrient management to maximize their costs of inputs, as well as utilize nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently.

Much of the sensor-based nutrient management technology shares the same concept of the N-rich strips, but researchers within their areas are advancing the systems to better suit the individual environments, Arnall said. The N-rich strips are one of the most versatile and simple methods of nitrogen management.

For more information regarding N-rich strips and sensor-based nutrient management, contact Brian Arnall at 405-744-1722 or at b.arnall@okstate.edu.

Lisa Brown can be reached at 620-227-1805 or by e-mail at lbrown@hpj.com.

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