Managing N in a Wet Spring

Managing N in a Wet Spring

USDA NASS estimated 26% of Nebraska’s corn acres had been planted as of May 2, well behind last year’s pace of 45% and slightly behind the five-year average of 31%. The pace is undoubtedly being affected by the amount of precipitation across the state and the wet field conditions (Figures 1 and 2).

Planting may be in the front of everyone’s mind, but we do not want to lose sight of nitrogen (N) management. With the extra moisture, water movement through the soil creates reason for concern. If N fertilizer was applied either last fall or this spring before the past few weeks of rains, potential loss of N is likely.

 Most inorganic N is in the form of nitrate. Nitrate comes from fertilizer N applied, as well as N mineralized from soil organic matter and plant residues. Nitrate in soil is subject to leaching losses when excess water drains below the active rooting depth, which is about 3-4 feet for corn. In the last two months (March and April) most areas across Nebraska have seen significantly more rainfall than long-term averages for the same period (Table 1), causing many producers to wonder if their fields are at risk for nitrate leaching.

Estimating Nitrate Leaching Risk across Nebraska as of May 1

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln publishes an N modeling tool, Maize-N, that estimates corn N need and potential N losses based on historic and current weather data. Using real-time weather data as of May 1, 2016, simulation results of the Maize-N model suggest soils in most corn and soybean areas are likely very wet, with moisture content around field capacity. Some areas have been at this level for the past one to two weeks. As soil hardly retains water above field capacity, excess rainfall likely has drained down through the soil profile below soil rooting depth along with the nitrate in the soil water. In addition, nitrate that did not leach below the 3-4 foot depth is still at risk for further soil water movement, which could leach additional N beyond crop roots.

March-April 2016 NE precipitation
Figure 1. Precipitation in inches from March 5, to May 3, 2016. (Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center)NE Oct-May precipitaiton 2016
Figure 2. Precipitation in inches from Oct. 1, 2015 to May 2, 2016. (Source: High Plains Regional Climate Center)

Table 1. Total rainfall from March 1 to May 1 2016 in comparison to long-term averages at locations across Nebraska and estimated current soil moisture status and possible amount of nitrate leaching losses. This assumes soil texture of silty clay loam with root zone soil moisture approximately 70% of field capacity in early March 2016. All weather data are from HPRCC-AWDN.

LocationRainfall (in)
March 1-May 1
Long-term mean

Rainfall (in)
March 1-May 1

Current root zone
soil moisture
Amount of
nitrate leached,
% of total
Beatrice 3.0 3.5 Very wet* 12
Clay Center 1.8 5.4 Very wet 8
Concord 2.6 6.5 Very wet 13
Elgin 2.3 6.3 Very wet 15
Grand Island 2.5 6.1 Very wet 14
Holdrege 2.4 7.6 Very wet 22
Lincoln 2.5 4.9 Very wet 0
McCook 1.6 6.7 Very wet 18
Mead 2.4 5.1 Very wet 3
North Platte 1.7 6.5 Very wet 17
O’Neill 2.4 6.6 Very wet 15
Ord 2.3 8.9 Very wet 30
*Near field capacity

Assuming a silt clay loam soil texture and soil moisture around 70% of field capacity in the beginning of March, the Maize-N model estimated nitrate leaching at approximately 14% of the total nitrate remaining in mid-April 2016. The risk of nitrate leaching is relatively greater for northeast Nebraska, including Ord, West Point and O’Neill, as well as southwest Nebraska, including Holdrege, McCook, and North Platte. North Platte’s risk of N leaching may be high this spring. For lighter soil textures the risk of nitrate leaching is greater while the opposite is true for heavier textures. For example, the average nitrate leaching was estimated to be 23% of total nitrate present in mid-April assuming sandy loam texture for all locations while the corresponding value was 9% for clay loam for all locations.

Because the soil in most fields has likely been fully recharged, further rainfall in the coming weeks will likely lead to more nitrate leaching.

It is important to point out that models are estimates and not exact numbers. Any number of factors may affect an estimate such as variability in rainfall amounts, soil moisture movement, temperature, etc. That is why these estimates should be taken in the context. One’s own sites will most certainly differ, but the important point is that N leaching is likely, and management plans must be assessed to prevent significant yield loss from N nutrition deficiencies that may show up later in the growing season. (See related article, Using Chemigation for In-Season N Application.)

Nitrogen Management

Fortunately, several tools are now available to assess the N status of your management system. The most rudimentary but yet invaluable tool is the soil sample. It may be a lot of work, but taking composite soil samples at different depths (0-8, 8-24, and 24-48 inches) and having them analyzed for ammonium and nitrate, would give more confidence as to how much N is currently in the system, and where it is located. Is the bulk of the N in the lower depths? This should raise concerns for future losses.

Other tools are also available, such as chlorophyll meters, active crop canopy sensors, and aerial imagery. These tools all require a growing crop and work best after the V8 growth stage, which is just beyond the window of most tool bar sidedress options. These tools are accurate if calibrated: They require N-rich strips to be used as the comparison. Sensors have been shown to be an effective management strategy for varying N rate throughout the field via high clearance N applicator. (See UNL Project SENSE introduction and 2015 results.)  We realize not everyone will have access to these machines, and so what other options are there?

If the sensors need to be used beyond the point of when you can sidedress, think about using the PSNT which is a 1-foot sample taken the first week of June. The ppm nitrate in this sample have been calibrated for Iowa, but not Nebraska. Consider how much N is currently in your system, and use the UNL N algorithm in Fertilizer Suggestions for Corn or use modeling tools like Maize-N to help estimate future N needs based on your field conditions.

Last but not least, some growers are set up to fertigate. Many shudder at the thought of putting more water on a field that is sopping wet, but later in the season, fertigation allows a grower to respond to potential deficiencies by delivering a timely application of N to the crop. We do not currently have guidelines specific to fertigation (we’re working on it), but by using the Nebguide Using a Chlorophyll Meter to Improve N Management, you can get a reasonable estimate of when and how much N to apply.

Of course all of these methods still require continuous monitoring of your corn crop and its response to changing weather and field conditions. Nitrogen is a tricky nutrient and needs to be watched carefully to prevent losses to both your bottom line and the environment.

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