Reducing Nitrogen Losses: Most growers I’ve interacted with desire to be good stewards of the land and leave it better for future generations. Economically, they also need to be increasingly efficient in how they farm. One of these stewardships and efficiencies comes in preventing nitrogen losses and individual farm situations may differ in how the risk of those losses is reduced.
Nitrogen losses occur three primary ways: Leaching, Denitrification, and Ammonia Loss.
1-Leaching: All nitrogen fertilizer eventually converts to the nitrate-Nitrogen (nitrate-N) form. This form has a negative charge and is not held by negatively charged soil particles. Thus excessive rains can allow for leaching of nitrogen below the plant root zone, particularly in sandier soils. Fertilizers that are already in the nitrate form such as urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) and ammonium nitrate are susceptible to leaching upon application. Soil microbes can convert urea to nitrate-N within two weeks in late spring, making it susceptible to leaching loss. Anhydrous ammonia takes longer to convert to nitrate-N because it initially kills soil microbes that would convert it. Less conversion occurs once soil temperatures consistently reach 50°F and lower without excess soil moisture.
2-Denitrification occurs in saturated soil conditions where certain soil bacteria can survive and thrive. The bacteria convert nitrate-N to oxygen and nitrogen gases resulting in nitrogen lost to the atmosphere. Heavy, poorly drained, compacted soils are most susceptible to loss via denitrification.
3-Volatilization occurs primarily in urea based products such as dry urea or liquid urea-ammonium nitrate (UAN) when applied on the surface and not incorporated via rain or tillage. The urea in these situations is converted to ammonia gas via urease enzymes in the soil and plant residues. Up to 15-20% of urea can volatilize within a week after application if the conversion occurs at the soil surface during warm, sunny days, particularly in high residue situation, pH levels greater than 7.0 and on light textured soils. If the urea is injected or incorporated after application, or if half-inch of rain/irrigation is received within 24 hours after application, volatilization risk is essentially eliminated.
In general, to reduce the risk of leaching or denitrification, our Extension Soil Fertility Specialists recommend considering applying the majority of nitrogen close to when crop demand is high with more nitrogen applied during the growing season vs. pre-plant. Research has included in-season and split applications including side-dress with and without use of crop sensors, and/or fertigation. The use of inhibitors is not advised in season as research showed they can release N too slowly for the crop demand resulting in yield loss and/or resulting in increased leaching of nitrogen when it was released too late in the growing season for crop uptake. Inhibitors may help reduce risk of leaching or denitrification pre-plant, but they are not a silver bullet and need to be well targeted in order to aid in reduced nitrogen losses. In general, the research is more supportive for inhibitor use in sandy soils vs. heavier textured soils; yield benefit to a nitrification inhibitor may be none to a few bushels/acre for silt loam or silty clay loam soils. The duration of inhibitor effects depends on soil temperature and may be as little as 1-2 weeks or as much as 6 weeks with spring pre-plant applications. Split application was likely more effective than use of most inhibitors to reduce leaching loss.
Places where inhibitors could be well-targeted to high risk nitrogen loss situations include: urease inhibitor reducing ammonia volatilization with delayed rainfall after urea or UAN broadcast to no-till fields, wheat and pastures, and/or soil pH >7.2; nitrate leaching in a wet spring, especially with sandy soil; denitrification and nitrous oxide emission for poorly drained soil subject to flooding. Other research-based recommendations include considering the addition of alfalfa in rotation 5 of 10 years and including a cover crop in situations where excess nitrate-N may occur, such as seed corn. Two tools developed by UNL for helping quantify the risk of nitrogen loss include the Nitrogen-Loss Assessment Tool (N-LAT) and Maize N which can be accessed at: https://cropwatch.unl.edu/soils.