Get ready to apply lots of N soon
After a long and cold winter, it feels good to know its mid-March. We all recall last year’s “Mayday snowstorm,” a reminder that spring is a pretty unpredictable season. In agriculture, we have to head into it with plans, backup plans and backups to the backups. I’ll share a few things to think about while we are chomping at the bit getting ready to hit the fields.
A concern right now is getting the rest of our nitrogen applied this spring. We had some good fall NH3 seasons recently; probably averaged getting 50% to 70% of our total N applied in the fall over the last decade or so. Much like last spring, fall 2013 wasn’t so agreeable, and we didn’t get nearly as much work done as we counted on. Now we’re faced with putting a much larger portion of our N on in the spring than we’ve had to do in years.
We’ll need a great early spring to get the N applied in good shape. If we get too many rainy and muddy days, we’ll face many challenges. Pushing the limits with spring NH3 and wet soils can lead to issues like soil compaction, N losses if the knife track doesn’t seal well, and ammonia burn to corn seedlings. This is easier said than done, and is advice coming from a guy who consistently struggles with this attribute: Try to exercise patience and not get the season started off on the wrong foot by pushing to get spring NH3 applied.
We can try to shift to liquid 28% or 32% N sources or dry N sources if NH3 doesn’t work out, but there are significant challenges for those as well:
• Price. Dry and liquid N are typically more expensive than NH3. On top of that, if growers prepaid NH3 and end up having to switch, there can be financial penalties on top of just the normal price differences.
• Logistics. NH3 is 82% nitrogen, so transport and storage is inherently more efficient than dry (46%) or liquid (28% to 32%). Dry and liquid take more trucks and labor to get them delivered, a potential challenge in a short spring season. As a former retailer, running low or out of N fertilizer in spring (even for just a few hours) was a nightmare for both us and our customers. Retailers do everything in their power to keep inventories full and schedule deliveries, but sometimes there just aren’t enough trucks and trailers.
• Availability. If the season is short, pipelines and terminals can be maxed out, leading to shortages of N similar to what we saw with propane this fall and winter. So, while there are alternatives to spring NH3, getting ahold of them may or may not be a challenge. If you can, have a quick discussion about your availability and pricing options on alternative forms of N with your fertilizer dealer ASAP.
Alternative: spring-applied N
Another alternative is to apply N after planting is done. There are several ways to do that if you have to, or you can even plan on it. As we get past the spring rush, often N product shortages are alleviated. While you have a smaller application window, the good news is you may have more flexibility on N products.
In the article below, I explain various spring and sidedress N options, which have pros and cons. I don’t mean to make planning for spring or sidedress application to sound like a bad thing; we just haven’t had to get this much N on in the spring in a long time. If weather cooperates, it will be no big deal. I also don’t want to make it sound like we should always apply as much N as we can in the fall to alleviate this sort of pressure in spring. Fall NH3 certainly has its own set of benefits, challenges and risks as well.
Having been on both sides of the fence, the keys will be communication, cooperation, patience and flexibility. Talk through multiple plans with your fertilizer dealer now so everyone is on the same page later as far as N sources, pricing, availability, ability to switch, application options, equipment and the rest of the long list of details.
McGrath is an ISU Extension field agronomist at Harlan in western Iowa. Contact him at email@example.com.
A dry idea
This article published in the March, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
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