Evolving Nitrogen Application Practices

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Adoption and use of nitrogen stabilizers are at an all-time high, as more and more farmers can document nitrogen-use efficiency, increased yield and improvements in water quality.

agronomist scouting field image

In the Beginning …

When introduced in 1974, N-Serve®nitrogen stabilizer was an innovative breakthrough — a product well ahead of that time. However, lacking data and proof, farmers had difficulty believing that this new discovery could accomplish so many things. How could one product inhibit nitrogen leaching, extend nitrogen uptake availability, improve water quality, increase yield and enhance overall nitrogen-use efficiency? 

Jump ahead to the early 1980s, a decade when we began learning much more about nitrogen fertilizer — anhydrous ammonia specifically — and how it reacts in different soils and weather conditions. Environmental concerns linking nitrogen fertilizer leaching to increases of nitrate detections in drinking water sources — such as wells — prompted the agriculture industry to take action. 

As the first stewards of the land, farmers stepped up and adjusted nutrient management plans and adopted proven nutrient loss prevention practices. Several Midwest states formed water quality coalitions and task forces to study water quality issues and provide farmers with recommendations for improving water quality and minimizing nitrogen leaching. Best management practices proven to inhibit nitrogen loss — including the use of nitrogen stabilizers — became more widely adopted. 

Changes on the Nutrient Landscape

Yet, in the mid-1990s, things began to change. Now, with more than two decades of data from field trials, dozens of independent university Extension research initiatives and an increasing number of positive experiences by farmers, adoption of nitrogen stabilizers gained momentum. Changes in application timing, advancements in precision application technology and access to more information about nutrient uptake and the nitrogen life cycle were also motivating factors that prompted proactive practices farmers to take additional steps to address water quality. 

“Farmers made significant changes in how they view and manage inputs, especially nitrogen in the past 20-plus years,” said Eric Scherder, Ph.D., commercial launch manager with Corteva Agriscience. “Application timing is a big factor. It used to be that nearly all anhydrous ammonia was applied in the fall. Today, fall application is only part of a total nitrogen management program. Farmers have shifted application timings away from fall to spring and sidedress, greatly reducing the amount of N susceptible to loss.” 

Scherder said many farmers today follow the 4R approach to nutrient stewardship — right source, right rate, right time, right place — and using products such as N-Serve® and Instinct® nitrogen stabilizers to come up with a well-balanced program approach to nitrogen management. 

Generational Shifts 

When nitrogen stabilizers were introduced, farmers were in the comfort zone mindset of doing what they’ve always done related to nitrogen application. Today, a new generation of innovative, tech-savvy young farmers approach crop production with a more receptive adopter mindset. 

“When we introduced the stabilizer technology back in the early 1970s, in essence, what we were doing then was bringing a high-def color television to the market,” Scherder said. “Amazing technology that did absolutely everything we wanted it to do. But it was the wrong era.” 

In the 1970s, many farmers may have been reluctant to utilize a nitrogen stabilizer as this technology and concept was new, the price of nitrogen was still somewhat low compared with corn, and there were fewer environmental concerns associated with nitrate leaching. There were also less perceived negative consequences associated with overfertilization than there is now. Credible research, technology, precision application and other factors are where we’ve come today. 

“Fast-forward 40 years to now,” Scherder said. “We’re applying less nitrogen on a per-acre basis and we’ve increased yields dramatically. We’re putting more and more stress on every pound of nitrogen we put out there, and that’s why farmers in general over the past 10 years are looking for tools to assist in their nitrogen management. That’s why we are seeing such a high adoption of N-Serve and Instinct into a lot of farming operations.” 

Today’s Nutrient Landscape

While the receptive mindset of today’s young farmers has factored into the increasing adoption of nitrogen stabilizers, there’s a practical, bottom line, business side of the equation. Mike Moechnig for Corteva Agriscience and located in eastern South Dakota, said farmers in his area are adopting N-Serve and Instinct due to notable improvements in nitrogen-use efficiency.

“Sustainability and the environment will always be a driver, but economics also plays a big role,” Moechnig said. “Heading into 2019 with an uncertain farm economy, rising input costs and low commodity prices, farmers are scrutinizing every input cost. It’s important for them to recognize that using a stabilizer enhances nitrogen-use efficiency, which ultimately comes back to economics. Using a nitrogen stabilizer enhances utilization of the nitrogen you put out there, and you will likely not have to put out as many units of nitrogen in the first place. You know the nitrogen units you’ve applied are going to remain in the soil for plant uptake and not lost to leaching.”

What it all boils down to for farmers — especially during tough economic times when every input cost will be scrutinized — is this: How much corn can you grow with fewer units of nitrogen without leaving yield potential on the table?

“Our nitrogen maximizers will improve nitrogen-use efficiency on corn acres,” Moechnig said. “Improving nitrogen-use efficiency will likely require fewer units of nitrogen initially and more nitrogen available at critical uptake stages. The result is more bushels and more income. Of all the input investments farmers will be considering in the year ahead, N-Serve or Instinct should be on the ‘yes’ list.” 

Instinct is not registered for sale or use in all states. Contact your state pesticide regulatory agency to determine if a product is registered for sale or use in your state. Federal law does not require any person who applies or supervises the use of Instinct to be certified in accordance with EPA regulations and state, territorial and tribal laws. Some states may have additional requirements related to liquid manure and nitrogen stabilizers. Be sure to consult your state or local Extension service to understand your requirements. When applying Instinct to deep pits, appropriate manure agitation safety steps should be followed. Instinct should be applied directly to the deep pit prior to pumping the pit; a thorough agitation system must be operating in order to evenly distribute Instinct within the deep pit; applicators and handlers of Instinct and manure treated with Instinct are required to use proper protective equipment as stated on the product label; air ventilation systems must be operational inside barns. Do not fall-apply anhydrous ammonia south of Highway 16 in the state of Illinois. Always read and follow label directions.