fertilizer at the National Farm Machinery Show

Gregg Sauder speaks as part of a panel on fertilizer at the National Farm Machinery Show. The Tremont, Ill., farmer and inventor said he has never been for “once and done” when it comes to nitrogen application. 

PEORIA, Ill. — Making the right nitrogen decisions is always a priority for farmers, but it’s getting extra attention this year with higher fertilizer prices when profit margins are tight.

No one thing is right for every farmer or every field. Location, soil type and farming practices all play a role in trying to find the best fit.

Skip Klinefelter, a Nokomis, Illinois, corn, wheat and soybean farmer, says Route 16 is the dividing line for how he manages his nutrients. The Montgomery County farmer manages nitrogen on the “darker side” to the north differently than he does the lighter soils on the south side.

He practices the 4Rs of nutrient management: right source, right rate, right time and right place. This means doing things differently on the north side than on the south.

He never uses anhydrous in the fall on the lighter soils to the south. This year with the late harvest, he only got about 60 percent the anhydrous he normally applies in the fall.

“We’ll likely be using more 28 than anhydrous this year,” he said of UAN 28 percent to be applied in the spring.

Klinefelter, who also owns Linco Precision, a precision farming business, said he expects there will be a scramble this spring for some suppliers to get enough nitrogen to meet growers’ needs.

There will also be a bit of a challenge getting equipment as well. Usually after nitrogen was applied in the south, the equipment moved north, but this year everyone will be running late.

Still, Klinefelter has a basic plan that includes applying nitrogen and phosphorous and micronutrients while planting. He plants 20-inch rows, so it is tough to sidedress.

And he uses soil testing to make sure he has it right.

Recommendations change

Ric Brenneman of Minier, a fifth-generation crop farmer, has seen the recommended amount of nitrogen per bushel of corn fall dramatically during his years of farming. Forty years ago, they recommended 1.2 pounds of nitrogen per bushel of corn. Now that number is 0.8 lbs./bu., and some agronomists are saying as low as 0.6, he said.

His own operation is proof that the lower amounts work. Last year, they harvested 277 bushels per acre of corn with 0.7 lb. of N/bu.

The McLean County farmer said he keeps adjusting his approach. He used anhydrous in the fall in years past, but has switched to 28 percent UAN.

Fertilizer purchases have remained relatively flat over the last 20 years, said Kris Reynolds, Midwest deputy directory with American Farmland Trust. He said farmers are increasing their use of variable nitrogen, adjusting their timing and paying attention to nutrient management. Cover crops, no-till and reduced tillage are all part of the recipe to reduce, with both profitability and sustainability in mind.

Many farmers still like to pad their nitrogen application a little just to make sure they have enough, said University of Illinois ag economist Gary Schnitkey. He said that plan might not work so well in 2019, which looks like it will be a tight year economically.

The Maximum Return to Nitrogen Rate (MRNR) in Illinois is a guide that helps farmers choose the right amount of nitrogen for their fields. The guide, created by University of Illinois professor emeritus Emerson Nafziger and a team, shows that the best rate is 183 pounds per acre, but many farmers don’t feel comfortable going that low, especially if they are applying anhydrous in the fall, Schnitkey said.

He said surveys of farmers show 80 to 90 percent are using more than the MRNR recommendations.

Schnitkey notes that fertilizer costs are going up as much as $100 per ton for anhydrous. Farmers may be paying $11 per acre more for N at a time when corn will likely be about $3.60/bu.

N placement

Another aspect of nitrogen management that interests farmers is placement. That topic was the focus of a Beck’s Practical Farm Research project. Dave Wilson, a Beck’s agronomist, said that using a 2x2x2 nitrogen placement system — 2 inches beside the seed and 2 inches below the soil surface on both sides — was both a yield booster and profitable in studies at multiple locations over two years.

The 2017 growing season was wet and 2018 was dry, but the system of 60 lbs. N added 6.5 bu./acre in 2017 and 6 bu./acre in 2018, Wilson said.

He said that having additional N early “may be more important than we believed.” Placing the nitrogen where the roots can access it may also be critical to the success of the system, he said.

“We didn’t add more nitrogen, just placed it differently,” he said when talking agronomics at the National Farm Machinery Show.

Farmers are finding the nitrogen system that works best for them. Connor Headings, a central Ohio farmer, said he uses a dry plater with urea and potash.

“We sidedress if we can,” he said.

He may also use a Y-drop for late-season nitrogen. The young farmer also attended the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Kentucky, this year.

Getting just the right amount of nitrogen is important. Using too little or too much costs money, said Rick Diericks, a corn and soybean farmer in Geneseo, Illinois.

“My father was very good at nitrogen management,” he said.

For his corn acreage, Diericks normally puts about one-third of his nitrogen on in the fall with N-Serve as a nitrogen stabilizer, and he uses variable rates.

“You still learn something every year,” Diericks said.

Gregg Sauder, a central Illinois grain and dairy farmer, as well as founder of 360 Yield Center, is as focused on nitrogen efficiency as anyone.

“We believe split applications is the best,” he said while speaking as part of a panel on fertilizer at the National Farm Machinery Show.

The Tremont, Illinois, farmer and inventor said he has never been for “once and done” when it comes to nitrogen application.

“In a $3.50 corn market, we don’t want to spend too much, but we don’t want to run out,” he said adding that he is big on banding.

“We can’t change the corn price,” he said, so he must focus on controlling what he can for costs and profitability.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.