New Year's Resolutions in Nitrogen Management

A new year always brings the promise of change and promises to do things better. Eat better, exercise more, and don’t forget Valentine’s Day. But as farmers, we have another goal to consider that has one of the greatest impacts on our 2016 profits: nitrogen management. In today’s tough economic environment, this is a critical place to resolve to get better. Jim Hedges, a central Illinois farmer and director of sales for 360 Yield Center believes 2016 presents opportunity to challenge the way we manage our nitrogen. Hedges has three goals for his new year nitrogen plan: maximize yield, optimize efficiency of his nitrogen budget, and be good stewards of the land.

Here are Hedges commitments for 2016:


Resolution 1 – Understand your hybrids and their nitrogen needs

The biotech and genetic revolution of the past two decades brought tremendous potential in today’s hybrids. There is easily 700 bushel of yield per acre in the hybrids we plant today, yet we don’t get close to that. Water will typically be our first limiting factor, but nitrogen is a close second. On non-irrigated land we can’t control the water, but we can certainly control our nitrogen availability.

These high-powered hybrids use more nitrogen later in the growing season. At the V10 growth stage of corn, the plant has only used 25% of its total needs. Therefore, we need to have a plan in place to make sure we are feeding the corn when it is hungry. Running out of nitrogen late results in ear tip back and smaller, lighter kernels.


Resolution 2 – Understand our fields and their load capacity in regard to nitrogen

Corn growers routinely see 100 bushel differences in yield from one end of the field to the other. Much of this is caused by variability in soils and their ability to hold and mineralize nitrogen. Understanding soil types, CEC’s, organic matter and drainage is critical to eliminating yield variance. Just because a field was established as a 40 or 80 acre block fifty years ago, doesn’t mean it is one homogenous block of soil. Working with your agronomist, consultant, or ag retailer to understand how to strategically build a nitrogen program based on these variations is a significant step in maximizing yield and input efficiency.


Resolution 3 – Build a base-plus plan

Building a plan to get more bushels from every pound of N we apply begins with a base-plus approach. Front loading enough nitrogen to get our corn crop to the V14 stage allows us to keep the crop running on full throttle. Then we need to be prepared to refuel that crop based on what the environment has thrown at us. Some years we might actually apply more than our original total N plan because of denitrification, low mineralization or leaching. Other years, we may apply less due to drought or high levels of mineralization.


Resolution 4 – Measure, then apply

This is the hardest resolution to keep. It means a change in our approach to nitrogen fertilization. But, it is a change that pays big dividends. Obtaining soil nitrate measurements just prior to sidedress lets us know how much we have available for the plant to pollinate, fill and add test weight. It takes 1.1 pound of nitrogen to produce a bushel of corn. Knowing how much nitrogen is available at V6 through V12 allows us to understand if we have enough to ‘finish the race’ and reach our yield potential. Tools like 360 SOILSCAN provide easy, real-time nitrate measurements that provides the information needed to make well informed nitrogen application decisions.

Hedges has tested this approach on his Moweaqua, IL farm over the last two seasons. Using this approach, he has seen high average yields and lower peaks and valleys in performance across variable soils and slopes. New year’s resolutions come and go, but following these four can impact yields, input costs, and profitability.