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Tips for managing nitrogen fertilizer during wet weather

• By Erick Larson, Larry Oldham and Bobby Golden •

msu corn

Photo courtesy Mississippi State University

Mississippi’s warm, wet climate can pose considerable issues with nitrogen fertilization for corn, which is quite responsive and demands high amounts for optimal productivity. But the climate also greatly increases potential nitrogen loss through volatilization, denitrification and leaching compared to drier and colder climates.

Of course, the corn-growing season is quite long, encompassing considerable time during the spring and early summer when rainfall is normally plentiful, leading to extended soil saturation, which will promote significant nitrogen loss. Likewise, supplemental irrigation may also compound issues associated with nitrogen management.

Therefore, optimizing your crop response to nitrogen fertilizer will undoubtedly involve considerably more planning and management than simply applying a given fertilizer rate.

Your primary goal for improving corn response to nitrogen fertilizer should be to minimize nitrogen exposure to wet conditions while still meeting crop demand. During early corn vegetative stages, plant nitrogen needs are very low, while rainfall is normally high.

Therefore, applying only a small portion of total nitrogen near or shortly following emergence can greatly reduce your nitrogen exposure to unfavorable conditions promoting loss. Subsequent “split” or “topdress” applications should contain the bulk of the crop seasonal nitrogen needs.

The corresponding graph represents corn seasonal nitrogen uptake relative to key growth stages and serves as a basis for optimal application timing.

seasonal nitrogen uptake

For example, although corn doesn’t require much nitrogen during early vegetative growth stages, you need to apply a modest amount of about 30 to 60 lbs/a of nitrogen (10% – 20% of seasonal total) by the time it gets 4 to 6 inches tall or slightly later if you applied a starter fertilizer.

Corn begins rapid growth and nitrogen uptake at about the V5-6 growth stage. This is the key stage for your ground-applied nitrogen operation or side-dress application, which supplies the bulk of seasonal crop needs. A practical goal for side-dressing or injecting liquid nitrogen is when corn reaches V4 – V6 growth stage (8 to 18 inches tall).

A pre-tassel application can also be incorporated as simply another split in your system to improve nitrogen efficiency. This method may improve fertilizer efficiency by reducing fertilizer exposure to soil saturation and resultant losses.

Top-dressing urea is also becoming more popular method for growers in the Mid-South. However, there are inherent drawbacks with this method that may increase risk compared to the traditional side-dress method of injecting liquid nitrogen solution in the soil. Top-dressing urea requires rainfall or over-head irrigation to successfully incorporate nitrogen and prevent volatility loss.

This can present issues if we experience a lengthy dry spell encompassing key application time, which may happen at times during May. This is why reliance on top-dress urea fertilizer is not common in drier regions of the United States.

We strongly recommend using a urease inhibitor containing the active ingredient NBPT, such as Agrotain, Aborite AG, N-Veil, NITRAIN or NitroGain UI to limit volatility of top-dressed urea. Of course, timing urea application prior to forecast rainfall is suggested to help aid incorporation and reduce potential volatility.

Additionally, avoid application to saturated or wet soils which promote loss. In order to minimize leaf burn associated with top-dress application, we generally suggest applying no more than 150 lbs/a of urea per application on corn more than 3 feet tall.

Thus, multiple top-dress applications (usually four to six) are required to meet total seasonal N demand. After the initial fertilizer is applied shortly after crop emergence, we suggest timing subsequent applications beginning at the V5 growth stage (12 inches tall).

Dr. Erick Larson is state Extension specialist, grain crops; Dr. Larry Oldham is Extension soils specialist; and Dr. Bobby Golden is Extension soils specialist. All are with Mississippi State University.