The Silver Bullet for Nitrogen Management

The Silver Bullet for Nitrogen Management

There’s not one.


 Sorry if I spoiled your enthusiasm here with the catchy title.

 Please read on as there are several ways to improve our nitrogen use efficiency as we get ready to embark on very high nitrogen prices for 2022. 

We as farmers, consultants, managers and business owners need to stop thinking there is a silver bullet for anything in farming.  There are simply too many variables.  When it comes to nitrogen we must implement a much deeper understanding of the entire system to mitigate the numerous stresses we can go through in a given growing season.  The last 3 growing seasons are unfortunately a perfect example of multiple stresses and overall disappointing corn yields.

 This growing season alone, there have been some tremendous yields produced on only 130# of applied N (those on our Facebook page can see a yield monitor video posted today) and yet some cases of 225# or more providing severe disappointment. You can also refer back to a video last harvest showing 70+ bushel average difference in corn yields, where no additional nitrogen was applied.  Same hybrid, same field, same practices and yet huge yield disparity.

 More is not always better, especially when it comes to resiliency and profitability.  Too much water can be very detrimental.  Too much oxygen can kill any living organism.  Too much applied nitrogen can also contribute to our issues in trying to build a completely functional Plant, Soil, Soil Microbe System that offers the efficiency we should all be striving for as growers, consultants, etc.  The number one reason for decreased organic matter (OM), and humus worldwide is over application of nitrogen.  Why?  Soil bacteria love nitrogen.  They are like old, fat sows at the hog trough waiting for you to dump buckets of feed – in the case of soil bacteria this feed is nitrogen.  They love it and will consume it like candy.  The problem is, they then have to balance their own carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio.  This carbon is coming from OM and humus leading to further degraded soils.

 Excess nitrates in the soil also contribute to many of our current weed issues and excess plant NO3 contributes to plant disease, insect infestations, and suppression of P, S, Cl, and K, Ca, and Boron uptake.

 Please also recall Dr. Mulvaney and his research team’s nitrogen uptake data proving that only roughly 35% of applied nitrogen ever makes it into a plant.  Where does the remaining N come from?  Primarily the soil as amino acid N.  If you’d like to read or listen to any of his information on this let me know and I’ll be glad to forward the links. 


So what can we do to improve our nitrogen use efficiency to improve both yields and profits every single year?

  1. Split apply your N.  The new normal is wild extremes in weather that we’ve experienced  the last several years.  I don’t know of anyone who expects this to change for the better.  We weren’t provided with all the food/nutrition for the rest of our lives the day we were born and we really need to stop doing this for our plants, yields, and profits. 
  2. Nitrogen uptake occurs basically in 3 phases.  Early (VE-V5), mid (V6-VT), and late (R1-R6).  The N uptake in these periods is 20%, 50%, and 30% respectively. 
  • There are many in this business who are blaming the poor corn yields in ’21 primarily on losing nitrogen.  While it this N loss did occur and did contribute to yield loss, it’s not the primary reason corn yields overall are disappointing.  This is where understanding Root Causes are critical.
  1. Soils like all living creatures, must be able to breathe and exchange gases properly.  These gases are oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2).  When soils properly inhale oxygen, they then exhale CO2 (via microbial activity)– just like humans.  This CO2 then is easily uptaken via root systems and stomata cells on the underneath side of leaves.  This is why CO2 is the main driver of plant growth and makes up 90% of total plant biomass at maturity.  Whereas NPK make up only about 3% of total plant biomass at maturity.  If you refer back to the yield video from last year referenced above is exactly why there was a difference of roughly 70 bpa, when nothing was done differently.
  • When soils are saturated and have little to zero aggregate structure, the ability to breathe and exchange these gases is greatly compromised.  Leading also to poorer mineralization, nutrient balance/uptake, and then sets the stage for numerous diseases to take hold.  Thus why Tar Spot, Crown Rot, GLS, Rust, Anthracnose, etc. set in to contribute to severe premature plant death and yield/profit loss.
  1. Follow proper N mgmt. Rules –
  • Don’t apply too much at one time.  Generally, take your CEC x 10 and this will get you a realistic number for MAX application.
  • Nitrogen should always be applied with Sulfur, Moly as our Molvic, Ca as Calibrate or CACE (our Calcium Acetate), Carbon as molasses and/or quality humic acid, Tri Kelp, and Boron as B4.

                                i. Sulfur is needed to convert N to complete proteins and also for the numerous enzymatic reactions needed for proper and vigorous plant growth.  For N uptake to occur via root systems, it must first bind itself to available Ca in the soil. Soil test Ca levels are not good indicators of Ca availability. Moly is needed also for many enzymatic reactions, especially in this case of either converting NO3 to NH4 then ultimately to amino acids, but also being able to uptake N2 gas (free N) into our corn plants.  Moly is also needed for Rhizobium to convert N2 gas into a plant usable form for beans/legumes.

  • This mix above is very efficient at converting applied N to the amino acid form of nitrogen very quickly as long as you have the proper biology present and working for you in your soils.

                                i. In the yield monitor video from this harvest where yields are approaching 300 bpa, converting the applied N to the amino acid form is one of the huge keys to producing very high corn yields on only 160# of applied N.  There was also a check in this field where 130# applied showed the same yield as 160# total N.

  • The Amino Acid form of N is a corn plant’s #1 preferred form of N – not Nitrate (NO3) or Ammonium (NH4).

                                i. Plant’s Nitrogen hierarchy looks like this with the #1 preferred N source first.

  1. Amino Acid – plants absorbing amino acid N from soils/soil microbes is loaded with positive energy.
  2. Amine – AgriBio Systems N-Hume is a phenomenal foliar applied Nitrogen showing some impressive uptake/advantages the last 2 years.
  3. NH4
  4. NO3
  • Plan on sidedressing or topdressing, and at least one foliar application of N-Hume
  •                               i. Applied has never and will never = available

                                  ii. PROPER foliar applications have proven to be 10-15x more efficient than soil applied because of how quickly nutrients can be absorbed via leaf surface and not tied up in the soil by other minerals/factors.

                                 iii. Other mineral products can be added to the foliar N-Hume trip if needed.

    • High Mg soils will require more applied N.  This is due to the “sticky” nature of Mg and being an artificial soil “sticker”, making soils more prone to lack of O2.
    1. Optimize your soils Ca:Mg ratio
    2. No mineral lives alone on an island.  Growing high yielding, high profit, disease/insect immune, resilient crops is far more than just NPK application. 
    3. Focus on mgmt. decisions that revolve around Synergies to build a truly FUNCTIONAL SOIL.

     To change the outcome, we must change our approach.  We have more control than most want to believe.  But we cannot experience more control with the same old approach.

     “If you want to make small changes, change how you do things; If you want to make major changes, change how you SEE things.” – Don Campbell