Are you applying nitrogen to corn ground either this fall or next spring or both? There is a 99% chance that if you are farming in the Cornbelt, nitrogen application in some form is part of your annual ritual. Nitrogen prices are up because of the demand, and when we are planning on growing corn on more acres, the demand for nitrogen increases and the price correspondingly increases. Yesterday we looked at the small view of nitrogen from a single farm standpoint, and today we look at the broad regional view, which gives you a picture of how your practices relate to other Cornbelt farmers.
USDA has just released an extensive study of nitrogen, much too broad for thorough examination, so excerpts will be taken from the report. All of the data comes from 2006, so that is a slice out of time, and will not be quite parallel to last year or this year, but close enough for comparison. USDA says in 2006, 69% of the 242 million acres of primary cropland were treated either with commercial nitrogen or manure. Corn received 45% of the 167 million acres treated with nitrogen and 65% of the 8.7 million tons of nitrogen applied to those crops.
USDA looked at best management practices, which were defined as:
• Rate: Applying an amount of nitrogen at a rate that accounts for all other sources of nitrogen, carryover from previous crops, irrigation water, and atmospheric deposits.
• Timing: Applying nitrogen as close to the time that the crop needs it as is practical (as opposed to the season before the crop is planted).
• Method: Injecting or incorporating the nutrients into the soil to reduce runoff and losses to the atmosphere.
The economists report the application rate criterion was not met on 32% of the acres, with cotton having the highest percentage (47%) of treated acres not meeting the recommended rate, however corn accounted for 50% of all the treated acreage not meeting the recommended rate.
Regarding timing, the criterion was not met on 24% of acres, and 34% of corn acres received either commercial or manure nitrogen in the fall, which was outside of the criterion established as a best management practice.
On the issue of application method, nitrogen was not incorporated into the soil on 37% of the acres, which received 24% of the total applied nitrogen. Soybeans had the highest percentage (45%) of acres not meeting the recommendations, with corn accounting for 46% of all treated acres not meeting the criterion. USDA says corn acres make up nearly half of all acres that are in need of some type of improvement in nitrogen management, in at least one of the three criteria.
The Economic Research Service staff found the Cornbelt and Northern Plains dominate in terms of cropland not meeting the best management practices, which they readily acknowledge are the major corn growing areas of the US. They say in terms of nitrogen application in excess of the criterion rate, the Cornbelt and Lake States receive the greatest amounts of excess nitrogen. When viewed in a positive light of acreage treated with best management practices, 35% of all cropland met all three criteria. Corn acreage met all three criteria on 30% of acreage. Only 4% of all treated acres did not meet any of the criteria.
The economists say small changes on some of the acres would mean a significant turnaround in the data. “For example, about 14% of corn acres receive applications of 10% or less over the criterion rate. Reducing application rates on these acres so that the rate criterion is met would mean that nearly 80% of all corn acres would meet the rate criterion and that 35% of corn acres would meet all three criteria.”
The survey data indicate that in 2006, all of the nitrogen management criteria were met on an estimated 35% of the crop acres treated with commercial and/or manure nitrogen. In addition, a high percentage of treated acres met at least some of the nitrogen management criteria. Among all crops, corn met the criteria the least, and corn accounts for 50% of the treated acres upon which one or more improvements to management could be made to improve nitrogen use efficiency. Improvements in rate, timing, and/or method might be needed on 67% of corn acres.