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Nitrogen deficiency may affect Midwest corn crop

Agriculture.com Staff 06/05/2007 @ 7:27am

Soil and weather conditions this spring in Iowa and surrounding states could have a major impact on development of the region's corn crop going into the heart of the growing season, says an area agronomist.

Crop stress associated with nitrogen deficiency should be a big concern for corn growers who experienced a cool, wet spring. That stress may start showing up soon in some fields.

According to Tracy Blackmer, an agronomist with the Iowa Soybean Association, the large amounts of rain and extended wet growing conditions this spring in some parts of Iowa and neighboring states resulted in higher than normal leaching and denitrification of earlier applied nitrogen fertilizers. In addition to wet weather, Blackmer adds that numerous other field and soil conditions, including crop residue levels, soil pH and type of nitrogen fertilizer used, can impact nitrogen availability and cause deficiency stress.

"Nitrogen stress is critical to plant development from the eighth leaf stage to silking when the plant's need for nitrogen is at its peak," says Blackmer. He notes that similar wet weather in the spring of 2004 resulted in nearly 75% of tested fields in some areas of the state being nitrogen deficient during the growing season. This year could follow that same pattern.

The increased risk of nitrogen stress to the regional corn crop, combined with the anticipated higher corn prices and push for higher yields, make it important for growers to provide nitrogen to the crop when it's needed most. Blackmer says remote sensing using aerial photography can be an effective tool to help detect nitrogen deficiency in plants early so that additional nutrients can be applied in a timely fashion.

"We've worked with remote sensing as part of our nitrogen management research over the past several years and found it to be very useful in identifying fields with deficiencies and making nitrogen management decisions," he says. "Our surveys show that nearly 84% of growers made changes to their nitrogen fertilizer programs based on this information."

Crop images provided by remote sensing services, such as the OptiGro system from John Deere Agri Services, make it easy to detect even subtle changes in chlorophyll levels within the crop canopy, which correlate directly to nitrogen availability to the plants.

"By the time the telltale yellow leaves associated with severe nitrogen deficiency are noticed in the field, the plants have already been impacted," Blackmer adds. "Remote sensing can be effective in detecting problems early, before it results in significant yield losses.

"Based on this spring's growing conditions, and with the current cost of nitrogen and $4 corn, it would make sound agronomic and economic sense to closely monitor crop development and provide additional nitrogen when the crop needs it," Blackmer adds.

Soil and weather conditions this spring in Iowa and surrounding states could have a major impact on development of the region's corn crop going into the heart of the growing season, says an area agronomist.

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