Managing Your Nitrogen Bank Account After a Drought Year

by | Sep 13, 2021 | Promoted

Garth Donald, Manager of Agronomy, Decisive Farming by TELUS Agriculture

Back in 1930ish, Will Rogers said, “the farmer has to be an optimist, or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.” A lot might have changed in a hundred years of agriculture, but Will Rogers’ wisdom still holds true. Through flooding and hailstorms, August frosts and harvest snowstorms, most farmers manage to hold onto an “it’ll be better next year” attitude. This year, it’s drought that is compromising crops across much of the prairies. Though we all hope next year will be better, it’s critical that when farmers fertilize, they do so – yes, calculating forward with optimism – but also looking backwards at what wasn’t. 

If a farmer fertilized for a 50bu/ac canola crop this year but drought conditions mean the field only yields, say, 15bu/ac, the crop will have only used 38 of the 130lbs/ac of nitrogen applied. Going into next season, that field will already be primed with just over 90lbs/ac of nitrogen. Many, if not most, farmers under-calculate that residual, leading to over-application the next year. 

When farmers don’t manage their fertility with an eye to what’s already in the soil, an excess of nutrients can cause problems. Too much nitrogen enormously increases the likelihood of lodging. Not only will lodging cost as much as 25 to 30% of yield, but it’ll also drop possible combining speed in half or more. And being excessively generous with nitrogen can shortchange one’s ability to invest elsewhere in a farm business.  

There’s another piece too. Growing public interest in greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizer means proving our fertilizer use is responsible, informed, and based on best practices is critical. 

If you’ve heard it said once; you’ve heard it a thousand times: the key to success, especially after an outlier year like this one, is soil testing. Identifying actual nutrient levels allows farmers to make informed decisions about fertilizing to optimize yield and sustainability, mitigate wastage, and manage costly agronomic headaches including lodging. 

Yes, I know that some agricultural farmers lack trust in soil testing. I understand that getting accurate and consistent results from soil testing used to be difficult. But that’s not the case anymore. GPS technology, better sampling techniques, and improved analysis tools allow farmers to accurately compare results from identical locations year to year. I can confidently and with science behind me say that your very cheapest and best investment – even in a drought year when you’re trying to save every dime – is a soil test. 

Consider the math. Soil testing costs roughly $0.85/ac. Currently, urea is over $700/ton, which works out to $0.69/lb. That means a soil test is going to cost you less than 1.5lbs/ac of nitrogen. Perhaps you’ve got 30 or 50 or even 90lbs of residual nitrogen. While this might not be the year for a lot of cash flow, residual nutrients are like a savings account you may have forgotten you’ve got. Knowing what’s in that nutrient savings account allows you to make informed decisions so you can optimize next year’s returns no matter what nature throws. 

From there, you can build input efficiency still further by strategically managing your farm via variable rate inputs. We’d be happy to help: the Decisive Farming program is a partnership and collaboration where we leverage your knowledge of your land and elevate it with our experience to find ways to optimize your yield potential.

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