5 Tips to Get Fall Nitrogen Applications Right

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Fall nitrogen application green tractor

As we get closer to the time for fall nitrogen applications, you’re likely thinking of ways you can get the best return on that fertilizer investment this season — especially if you’re planning to apply your own fall nitrogen. Prices reached record highs this year and, while they have fallen a little bit recently, the costs are still high and uncertainty remains about what next year will hold.

Knowing all this, there are a few measures you can take now — and during the application process — to ensure you are getting the best ROI from your fall nitrogen. 

Tips for Fall Nitrogen Applications

Ty Stender is a Corteva Agriscience Nutrient Maximizer strategic account manager based in northern Iowa, and Ryan Clayton is a Pioneer agronomist based in south central Iowa. They recently put their heads together to offer their top five tips for maximizing fall nitrogen applications:  

1.       Have a Plan. Right off the bat, Clayton and Stender say their first tip is to make sure you’re going into your fall nitrogen application with a solid plan. “When you’re building your plan, you have to start by thinking of your corn yield goal for next year,” Clayton says. “You know you have this window of time to apply your nitrogen, but you also need to know the right amount of nitrogen to apply. You do that by setting a realistic yield goal, looking at the history in your fields, how many bushels you can expect and then calculating how much nitrogen you’ll need to grow those bushels.”

2.       Time It Right. The second tip is to time your application right. They say the right time isn’t a date on the calendar but rather a point at which the right conditions are present. “You want to make sure to apply fall nitrogen at the right time by waiting to apply until the soil temperature is 50 degrees and cooling,” Stender says. “The soil temperature being less than 50 degrees helps keep nitrogen in the more stable ammonium form, which prevents loss. You also want to make sure not to apply once there is frost on the ground, because that can keep from allowing a proper seal for anhydrous applications.”

3.       Avoid Extreme Conditions. The third tip is to avoid applying nitrogen in any extreme soil conditions. “Those extremes we want to avoid are soils that are too dry or too wet,” Stender says. “If you’re in a drought situation and the soil is too dry, you won’t be able to seal anhydrous. On the other hand, if the soil is too wet and muddy, you won’t be able to close the soil behind the anhydrous knife, and you’ll have the gas escaping in this situation too. You want the soil to be a little bit moist to ensure a proper seal but neither extreme of too wet or too dry.”

Clayton adds: “Consider your soil type as well. If it’s a sandy soil, it’s going to be very susceptible to loss. As an agronomist, I do not recommend fall nitrogen applications on sandy soils.”

4.     Consider Split Applications. Clayton and Stender say splitting up your nitrogen applications is something they recommend, if possible. “I know there’s a lot less risk with timing by applying all your nitrogen at once in the fall, if you have the opportunity to do so,” Clayton says. “However, we have a saying that ‘the soil is a terrible place to store nitrogen.’”

Stender adds: “As we know, nitrogen is vulnerable to loss as soon as it’s applied. Applying all of it in fall increases the risk for loss. Applying some nutrients in fall and the rest in spring or at sidedress can help ensure the corn gets to use it before it’s lost to the environment.”

5.     Remember Other Details. Finally, they say not to overlook some of the finer details that can have a major impact on nitrogen management. “Nitrogen is just one piece of the fertilizer puzzle … one thing we’ve learned in Iowa is that potassium [K] has a direct correlation to nitrogen use efficiency,” Clayton says. “Meaning, if you keep your K at or near optimum levels, you can be more efficient with every pound of nitrogen you apply. And, if your pH levels are good — if they’re neutral — that’s going to make all nutrients more available to our plants.”

“Additionally, drainage is always a huge factor when it comes to nitrogen use or loss on a corn-growing operation,” Stender says. “Improvements can be expensive, but making small fixes — a little at a time over the next several years — can help spread out the cost and make a big improvement long term.”

Protect Fall Nitrogen

Clayton and Stender say that even if you take all these steps, it’s still a good idea to protect your fall nitrogen application with a proven nitrogen stabilizer. N-Serve® nitrogen stabilizer works with anhydrous ammonia and Instinct NXTGEN® nitrogen stabilizer works with liquid manure, UAN and urea. 

“N-Serve and Instinct NXTGEN are both powered by Optinyte technology, which is proven to increase corn yield potential by an average of 7% when used with fall applications,” Stender says. “The solutions protect nitrogen below ground, where up to 70% of loss happens from leaching and denitrification.”

“Nitrogen is an expensive input right now and it’s one of our most expensive, regardless of what is going on in the fertilizer market,” Clayton says. “So we want to be really smart with it in terms of our return on investment.”

To see how much nitrogen you could lose by not protecting your fall application with N-Serve or Instinct NXTGEN nitrogen stabilizers, use the Nitrogen Loss Calculator on Corteva.us.  

Instinct NXTGEN® 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. Do not fall-apply anhydrous ammonia south of Highway 16 in the state of Illinois. Always read and follow label directions.