Study: Sensors Outdo Farmers At Choosing Nitrogen Rates

Corn Field

Choosing how much nitrogen (N) to put on corn fields isn’t something farmers take lightly. Many factors go into the decision, including past experiences, the timing of application, yield goals, and results from soil tests.

Nevertheless, crop sensors can select N rates for corn that outperform those chosen by farmers, according to more than 50 on-farm demonstration projects conducted in Missouri from 2004 to 2008. Compared to producers’ N rates, sensor-selected rates increased yield by almost 2 bushels per acre, on average, while reducing by 25% the amount of excess N that was applied to fields but not removed in grain.

As concerns about N pollution continue to mount, the sensors offer a way to cut fertilizer inputs without hurting yield or profits. “The most important thing, I think, is that we were able to make progress on both fronts: The technology slightly improved production and slightly improved environmental outcome,” says the study’s leader, Peter Scharf, a University of Missouri extension agronomist. “There has been talk about win-win, but really there have not been a lot of approaches that have actually [achieved] that.”

Funded by the USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants program, the Missouri DNR Nonpoint Source Pollution Control program, and the U.S. EPA Special Grants program, the study appears in the November-December issue of Agronomy Journal.

Scharf explains that although optimal N rates can vary substantially within and between fields, most U.S. corn growers still apply the same rates to entire fields or even entire farms. Many farmers in Missouri and elsewhere also spread N fertilizer months before planting, often the November before.

As fertilizer and seed costs keep climbing, however, corn producers are feeling financial pressure to apply N more precisely — in amounts that satisfy crop requirements but don’t exceed them. To help farmers with this, in 1997 Scharf began studying methods for predicting where to put more N in fields and where to put less before sowing crops, since that’s the system most people use. But he and his colleagues eventually turned to crop sensors, employed after plants start growing, as a more accurate means to diagnose N deficiency and sufficiency.

The sensors take advantage of what farmers know already from experience and common sense, Scharf says: Crops with enough N are darker green and taller, while N-deficient crops are lighter and shorter. After developing a technique for translating sensor output into a suitable N rate within a few seconds — work that was published in 2009 — Scharf and his collaborators began taking the technology to farms.

Fifty five demonstrations were eventually conducted across a broad swath of Missouri’s corn-growing region. In most cases, two or three sensors were attached to N applicators already owned by farmers or their service providers, and then used to side-dress N at variable rates to corn in growth stages ranging from V6 and V16. At the same time, fixed N rates chosen by farmers were applied in other areas, allowing comparison of the two techniques.

An average of 14 pounds/acre less N was applied when sensors chose the rates, the researchers found, without affecting yields. In fact, during the exceptionally wet spring of 2008, sensor use actually boosted grain yield by 8 bushels/acre, on average, over what producer rates achieved–a significant bump that brought the overall yield gain with the sensors to 2 bushels/acre over all 55 fields.

Scharf believes yield increased significantly in 2008 because the sensors actually chose higher N rates than farmers did that year, better compensating for fertilizer lost through heavy rainfall. And this yield bump, coupled with an overall reduction in N fertilizer from 2004-2007, ended up increasing partial profit by an average of $17/acre across all farms.

Despite the sensors’ benefits, however, “the adoption numbers are still quite small,” Scharf says. Complete systems currently range in price from $10,500 to $16,500, and learning to use them involves time and expense, as well. Still, these aren’t the main hurdles to wider adoption, he adds.

The bigger one is getting farmers to side-dress N during the growing season, rather than fertilizing in spring before planting or even the fall before.

The unusually heavy rains of the past four years may change that. Because applying N months in advance gives it more time to leach and run off, many farmers have lost loads of it — and, therefore, money and yield — in recent rain-soaked years. That leaves one option: Applying the nutrient during the growing season.

“If this weather keeps up, I think we’ll see more people going toward in-season N application,” he says. “And that will be a big obstacle out of the way to using the sensors.”

Leave a Reply

Fertilizer Stories

FertilizerKoch Agronomic Services Launches N-TEGRATION Technology
July 27, 2015
Koch Agronomic Services, LLC (KAS) has launched  N-TEGRATION Technology, a process technology platform designed to enable production of enhanced efficiency fertilizers at Read More
FertilizerWSJ: Cf Industries Exploring Merger With Dutch Chemical Company
July 23, 2015
U.S. fertilizer maker CF Industries is in advanced merger talks with Amsterdam-listed chemical company OCI NV, the Wall Street Journal Read More
Crop InputsH.J. Baker Launches Fall Sulphur Campaign
July 22, 2015
H.J. Baker has launched their “Keep Your Future Green – Use Tiger This Fall and Win Big” campaign. The campaign Read More
FertilizerNew Research Could Lead To Less Reliance On Nitrogen, Eliminate Runoff
July 21, 2015
Farmers often are required to apply nitrogen fertilizers to their crops to maintain quality and improve yields. Worldwide, farmers used Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100Pinnacle Purchases California-Based Specialty Crops Retailer
July 20, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings has successfully acquired California-based NH3 Service Co.  Operating as part of Pinnacle’s Performance Agriculture brand, the new locations Read More
Asmus Farm Supply liquid fertilizer facility features 20,000 square feet
CropLife 100Slideshow: Asmus Farm Supply Shows Off Its New Liquid Fertilizer Facility
July 15, 2015
Asmus Farm Supply, Rake, IA, recently added a new liquid fertilizer facility to its company operations. The new liquid fertilizer Read More
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Feed Division Facilities Receive Safe Feed/Safe Food Certification
July 13, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Co.’s Feed Division, a marketer and distributor of value-added feed ingredients for the aquaculture, livestock and pet food industries Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Expands To Brazil With Acquisition
July 8, 2015
BRANDT has acquired a majority interest in Target Brasil Fertilizantes Ltda. through its Brazilian subsidiary. Target Brasil manufactures, distributes and Read More
Milan Kucerak, president/CEO, West Central
CropLife 100West Central Cooperative And Its New President Are A Match Made In Deviation
June 29, 2015
To appreciate just how unique West Central Cooperative is in the world of ag retail, an observer need only consider Read More
Winter Wheat
CropLife 100South Dakota Co-op Member Owners Vote No On Unification
June 26, 2015
The Boards of Directors for North Central Farmers Elevator (NCFE) and Wheat Growers (WG) have announced that member-owners have voted Read More
Latest News
StewardshipOhio Water Quality Project To Determine How Much Phosph…
July 27, 2015
Researchers with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University are looking for farmers in Read More
FertilizerKoch Agronomic Services Launches N-TEGRATION Technology
July 27, 2015
Koch Agronomic Services, LLC (KAS) has launched  N-TEGRATION Technology, a process technology platform designed to enable production of enhanced efficiency fertilizers at Read More
HerbicidesExpert: IARC Herbicide Classifications Leading To Confu…
July 24, 2015
Few people in the crop protection industry had heard of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) before this Read More
ManagementFCI Trade Summit Update & Precision Tank Turns 50
July 23, 2015
Editors Dave Frabotta and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the upcoming FCI Trade Summit in Las Vegas, NV, and how Precision Tank Read More
Palmer pigweed seedhead in cotton
HerbicidesUSDA Deregulates Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist Cotton Trait
July 23, 2015
The USDA today issued its decision deregulating Dow AgroSciences’ Enlist cotton trait in the U.S. The USDA has now completed its Read More
Industry NewsVerdesian Life Sciences Showcases Versatile Product Por…
July 23, 2015
Technology has revolutionized agriculture by bringing farmers, retailers and distributors to the forefront of the digital age. To meet the Read More
FertilizerWSJ: Cf Industries Exploring Merger With Dutch Chemical…
July 23, 2015
U.S. fertilizer maker CF Industries is in advanced merger talks with Amsterdam-listed chemical company OCI NV, the Wall Street Journal Read More
HerbicidesNufarm Releases New Panther SC Herbicide
July 23, 2015
Nufarm has announced the availability of new Panther SC herbicide. Panther SC is the first liquid formulation of flumioxazin available Read More
EquipmentFarmLink Launches Farm Equipment Sharing Program
July 23, 2015
FarmLink has introduced a new online farm equipment sharing community – MachineryLink Sharing – leveraging this new economy business model Read More
HerbicidesCould The South’s Most Troublesome Weed Represent A Thr…
July 22, 2015
Palmer amaranth is undoubtedly the most troublesome weed in the southern United States, taking a devastating toll on both cotton Read More
Industry NewsH.J. Baker Hires New Director Of International Sales
July 22, 2015
Global Agriculture firm H.J. Baker announced today that Steve Langley has joined the company’s Crop Performance Division and Animal Health Read More
InsecticidesSyngenta Recommends Soybean Scouting To Prevent Economi…
July 22, 2015
Proper soybean insect pest control begins with scouting. As the warm weather continues, Syngenta encourages growers to implement a scouting Read More
Crop InputsH.J. Baker Launches Fall Sulphur Campaign
July 22, 2015
H.J. Baker has launched their “Keep Your Future Green – Use Tiger This Fall and Win Big” campaign. The campaign Read More
Central Valley Ag Randolph, NE
Retail FacilitiesStueve Construction Builds Fifth Facility For Central V…
July 21, 2015
Central Valley Ag partnered with Stueve Construction Co. to successfully design and build its Monroe, Oakland, Wakefield and Royal hub facilities Read More
FertilizerNew Research Could Lead To Less Reliance On Nitrogen, E…
July 21, 2015
Farmers often are required to apply nitrogen fertilizers to their crops to maintain quality and improve yields. Worldwide, farmers used Read More
Seed/BiotechMonsanto Targets Farmers, AFBF In Syngenta Takeover
July 21, 2015
As Monsanto Co. struggles to convince rival Syngenta AG to discuss a potential merger, the seed and agrochemical giant is Read More
CHS Building exterior
Retail FacilitiesSackett Helps CHS Expand Blending Facility, Improve Acc…
July 21, 2015
CHS needed a blend plant that could vastly expand their capabilities in St. Charles, MN. The A.J. Sackett & Sons Read More
Industry NewsH.J. Baker Adds To HR Team
July 21, 2015
H.J. Baker announced today that Barbara Sullivan has joined the company’s executive team as Vice President of Human Resources. Prior Read More