It came as no surprise to Tim Mundorf last fall that many post-harvest corn stalk test samples contained high levels of nitrogen (N). The field representative for Midwest Laboratories in Omaha, Neb., says dry weather and poor yields are reminders of how much N can go unused by corn plants in a drought. The lesson to be learned is that you should test under all conditions as part of a long-term, successful N management plan.

“Whether your nitrogen application is all fall, all early spring or split applications, testing allows you to manage nitrogen better,” says Mundorf. “If you are going into soybeans after corn in 2013, then testing has less value than if you are going corn on corn. But nitrogen must be managed, given high prices of fertilizer and grain, nitrogen dynamics and environmental issues.”

N management must also go hand in hand with water management, stressesTom McGraw, soil sampling specialist from Buffalo Lake, Minn. “Nitrates move with soil moisture. But if you got only half a crop in 2012 does that mean you only used half the nitrogen? We don’t know. You can test what is left in the fall, but winter snow and spring rains may reduce or eliminate any residual or fall applications,” he says. “I recommend testing and putting on nitrogen as close as possible to its use.”

 

Timely testing is vital

Generally, industry experts suggest you evaluate N needs using fall, early spring and/or late spring tests, possibly in combination with a fall stalk nitrate test.

“If you only plan one test at one place, forget it. Incomplete information can be detrimental,” says McGraw. “You won’t get the right answer. You need 10 days to two weeks for multiple sampling with different soil types and water-holding capacities.”

Soil type may also influence test results and application decisions. For example, Michigan State University recommendations suggest fields with manure or legumes sampled in June will likely contain the most nitrate. Other fields that show the most nitrate traditionally have fine-textured soils (loam, clay loam and clay) that were heavily fertilized the previous year. Sandy soils, even though heavily fertilized the previous year, may not show much carryover.

Harold van Es, Cornell University soil and water scientist, notes that, because corn’s response to N is so highly variable, the economically optimal N rate can range from 0 to 225 lbs./acre, depending on the rates of nitrate leaching, ammonia volatilization and denitrification.

Farmers can input data into the online calculator Adapt-N(http://adapt-n.cals.cornell.edu) to determine N recommendations. The free web-based decision support tool is linked to a computer model and high-resolution climate data that can be accessed from the field, office or mobile devices. Adapt-N also allows farmers to receive daily updates on in-season N status of their fields through text or email messages.

Quick, accurate results are behind the soil analysis done from the field by Solum, a precision soil analysis company with a research and development lab in California and a full-service lab in Iowa.

“We can run a test and have results in three minutes,” says Brian Springer, field sales manager for Solum and certified crop adviser based in Illinois. “Our equipment can be mounted in trailers for mobile applications or at retail locations.”

He explains that three Stanford University Ph.D. physicists, known for “measuring small things very well,” founded the company and developed the technique. “We use an optical sensor and UV spectrum to measure nitrate in a soil slurry.

“Moist nitrate testing is just as accurate as a cadmium reduction test,” he adds. “The cost is comparable to other tests, and gets information to the field more quickly. Quick results allow for more timely nitrogen applications versus a best guess.”

McGraw has observed Solum’s efforts. “They are spot on and very exact,” he says. “Regardless of the process, farmers need to test at least twice per season. Three is better.”