For decades, Illinois growers have calculated their nitrogen rates by multiplying 1.2 lbs N per bushel of probable corn yield. A new N test, however, has been developed that promises to be more scientific and accurate.

“The Illinois Soil N Test … measures the amount of organic nitrogen available for mineralization, the process that generates inorganic nitrogen for crop uptake,” says Richard Mulvaney, University of Illinois soil fertility specialist.

“By contrast, current nitrogen recommendations according to the Illinois Agronomy Handbook are based on long-term averages, a kind of one-size-fits-all approach that seldom works in the real world. These recommendations were never intended for individual fields in a particular growing season, and yet, year after year, this is how they have been used,” he adds.

The usual outcome is either under- or overfertilization, mostly at the farmer's expense, Mulvaney says. But he says that’s all that can realistically be expected of a system that ignores soil nitrogen availability. “The soil supplies the majority of nitrogen taken up by the corn crop, even with heavy fertilization.”

When the Illinois Soil N Test was compared with the current yield-based system, some interesting differences emerged.

“One major difference that stands out is the ability of the test to predict sites that will not respond to nitrogen. Remarkably, over six growing seasons, it was 90% effective in predicting non-responsive sites. By comparison, only six of these sites would have been detectable by the Illinois Agronomy Handbook method due, in each case, to the application of manure above accepted rates,” says research specialist Khan, co-developer of the Illinois Soil N Test.

However, more than 50% of the remaining non-responsive sites were cropped to continuous corn or corn after soybeans, which points out the problem with the current system.

“A major problem with the present system is that nitrogen credits for manure or a previous crop of soybeans does not apply beyond one year. This leads farmers to overfertilization. Even in the case of continuous corn, where nitrogen rates can exceed 200 lbs./acre, there is no nitrogen credit for unused nitrogen,” explains Khan.

“Also, the widespread occurrence of sites non-responsive to nitrogen in our study suggests the possibility of an increase in the nitrogen-supplying power of Illinois soils,” says Mulvaney. “If this increase has taken place over time, we are very interested in knowing more about what has caused it.”

The Illinois Soil N Test is relatively simple. First, a soil sample is treated with strongly alkaline solution. Then the sample is heated on a griddle for five hours, converting amino sugar nitrogen to gaseous ammonia. The ammonia is collected in an acidic trapping solution. The amount of ammonia is determined by titration, which estimates the soil’s nitrogen supplying power.

Efforts are under way to make the test even simpler, so it can be done by any soil-testing lab or by a farmer.

Despite the advances made, many questions remain about such issues as the optimal sampling depth, the best time for sampling, and especially the number of samples needed per acre.

“It just takes time to answer these questions because of the need for an extensive database large enough to ensure reliability,” said Khan.

The test has not yet been officially released to soil-testing facilities or the public. Mulvaney wants to improve on the failure rate first.

“We’re not claiming the test is 100% perfect yet, and it will probably never be 100% reliable,” he says.

The failure rate so far has been 10 in detecting non-responsive sites and about 20% in detecting responsive sites.

“The later failures are the biggest concern, but we think most of these were related to field variability and that they could have been avoided by improving the sampling strategies,” says Mulvaney.

To date, the funding organization of this research has been the Fertilizer Research & Education Council, but the researchers are seeking alternative funding sources for the next phase, which is a field calibration study.