Crops' N Trouble

Wet Field Conditions Mean More Nitrogen Needed

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Standing water is not a good sight, especially not in corn fields that have already been treated to a season's worth of nitrogen fertilizer. (DTN file photo by Scott R Kemper)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Standing water is not a good sight, especially not in corn fields that have already been treated to a season's worth of nitrogen fertilizer. The potential for nitrogen (N) losses is increasing in locations across the Corn Belt, and could get worse for areas where heavy rains are anticipated for the second week in June.

Many farmers are applying even more N fertilizer to assure yields, which will put even more pressure on already tight bottom lines. Other growers will settle for what nutrients are still present in the soil and risk lower yields.

WETTEST MAY EVER

Bryce Anderson, DTN senior ag meteorologist, said it has been an exceedingly wet spring and early summer. May was the wettest month ever in the contiguous U.S. with 15 states from the Great Basin to the Mississippi River with precipitation totals that were much above normal.

In the last four weeks, heavy rains have been present in the southwestern Corn Belt, mainly Kansas and Missouri. This has led to much standing water in fields in these two states.

"Topeka, Kansas, for example had 9.4 inches of rain in May, 4.5 inches above its average," Anderson said. Topeka has followed that up with another 4.76 so far in June -- just a week and a half into the month."

Farther to the east, St. Joseph, Missouri, had 9.76 inches of rain in May, 4.3 inches above the average. In addition, St. Joe added another 3.3 inches of rain so far this month, he said.

Anderson said all of this moisture has delayed spring planting with both Missouri and Kansas having less than one-third of their intended soybean acreage planted as of Sunday, June 7. Soybean planting has also been disrupted farther north in southwestern Iowa and southeastern Nebraska.

Anderson said the Western Corn Belt and much of the Plains are in a threat for moderate to heavy rains of 2 to 4 inches late this week. These rains could affected areas of Kansas and Missouri and even extend northward into most of Iowa and eastern Nebraska through southern Minnesota with similar rainfall totals.

"If this forecast verifies, some areas of the northwest Corn Belt that up to this point have been spared from ponding-out problems may have that threat in at least some parts of fields," Anderson said.

SUPPLEMENTING N

The ever-present questions during wet growing seasons are: How much N remains, and, are late-season applications worth it? Traditional nitrate-level tests based on actual soil samples can be prone to sampling error, field conditions and, in the case of lab-based tests, take too much time to get usable results. New, model-based tests such as Pioneer's Encirca Yield program require knowing accurate rainfall amounts in the field.

Years such as 2015 will put these modern decision-making tools to the test.

Ken O'Brien, central bureau unit Encirca Service Manager at DuPont Pioneer, said customers are just beginning to calculate whether additional N is needed. Farmers using these new technologies have a much better idea of gauging the situation they are in compared to those who are not using it, he said.

Richard Oswald, a DTN contributor who also farms in the Missouri River bottoms near Langdon, Missouri, was only able to get about four days of fieldwork done during the month of May. He estimated averaging about 2 inches of rain per week since the end of April.

The ponding water spelled especially bad news for Oswald, who applied most of his nitrogen in the form of anhydrous late last fall.

"I have been applying post-plant herbicides with 10 gallons of 28% liquid to boost N levels and give our seedling corn a boost, partly because I was afraid of denitrification and partly because of the cold, wet spring that made emergence and seedling development very slow," Oswald said. "I thought the extra available N might help."

Farmers in northeastern Kansas are also in the mode of applying extra N with the wet and cold spring. Chance Steele, a sales agronomist for AgPartners located in Hiawatha, Kansas, said his company has been busy trying to apply additional nitrogen mainly in the form of SuperU urea, which is a dry product that is melted down into liquid, the manufacturer adds stabilizer at that point, and it is then re-granulated.

"This is the first time we have applied this product," Steele told DTN. "We have been applying N both by ground and even by plane."

Steele said split application of N is growing in popularity in his region, like it is across most of the Corn Belt. He said more farmers than normal were forced into sidedressing N this spring with water standing on fields causing N to be lost.

Farmers do have some options when it comes to getting N to young corn plants, Steele said. In addition to dry N, liquid N and anhydrous can all be sidedressed to get N to the plants.

Farmers who have center-pivot irrigation systems can also apply N through the center-pivot unit. The nutrient is usually applied from around the v10 leaf stage, and then more fertilizer will be applied at about tassel, he said.

Oswald said irrigators have the luxury of waiting longer and taking tests to determine need. Nitrogen burning to the crop is not an issue, so application can take place all the way up to pollination, he said.

Of course, with water already standing in fields because of heavy rains, this may not be an option, he added.

MORE RAIN TO COME?

Steele said many of his customers are willing to continue to try to get N to the corn crop, but the next storm cell may be the tipping point when area farmers decide enough is enough. If his region were to receive multiple inches of rain and larger areas were to be drowned out, he believes farmers will be done trying to supply nutrients to the corn crops.

Oswald, the Missouri farmer, said his past experiences with wet field conditions have shown it's hard to correct such issues by throwing money at more fertilizer for fields that may stay wet a long time. Sometimes the best strategy is to save your money for next year, he said.

"I'm a river-bottom farmer," he said. "When we're wet, we're very, very wet."

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN

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Russ Quinn