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Sponsored: Two Truths and a Lie: Nitrogen Edition

Let’s play a game. It’s called two truths and a lie. We’ll tell you three facts, two are true and one of them is not. Your goal is to determine which is false. Ready? Go.

  1. Increasing populations in corn will always result in higher yields.
  2. Increasing nitrogen rates in higher populations will not always provide a positive return on investment (ROI).
  3. Split applying your nitrogen (N) will pay more times than not.

If you guessed number one was the false statement, then congratulations, you win this round. If you didn’t, you may want to keep reading.

The world of agriculture completely changed in the early 90s with the introduction Bt corn. At last, farmers were less concerned with issues such as stalk lodging or root injury. Yield potential was on the rise and farmers throughout the Midwest continued to look for new ways to increase their bushel per acre average. Many believed the best way to do this was to push the envelope by driving populations higher and higher. And thanks to the advancements in corn hybrids, root and stalk protection were no longer a concern.

While the theory seemed practical, many farmers found themselves wondering if driving up populations actually increased yield. Higher populations also meant overcrowding of corn plants, which led to additional questions regarding row widths. The next logical thought was to narrow row widths in an attempt to increase plant-to-plant spacing. So then, what truly is most economical, 20 in. or 30 in. rows? After that came the ever important nitrogen (N) debate. The obvious thought is that more plants means more required N to maximize yield potential…but is that always the case?

In an effort to help answer these questions for farmers, Beck’s Practical Farm Research (PFR)® team started their multi-location testing in 2016 at five of their six sites across the Midwest. By testing two different hybrids, one with a high N response and one that was N efficient, the team hoped to determine not only what Economic Optimum Seeding Rate (EOSR) in 30 in. rows was, but also the Economic Optimum Nitrogen Rate (EONR) for the hybrids tested. Let’s take another look at our two truths and a lie as we evaluate the results.

1. Increasing populations in corn will always result in higher yields. (LIE)

In 2016, across all locations, the hybrid with a low response to population produced the highest yields at the lowest selected populations. Meanwhile, the hybrid with a high response to population was stable across all three populations, with some of the highest yields in the lowest population. With that said, this one-year data supports an EOSR of 30,000 for both hybrids tested, proving that driving population does not always increase yields. On average, the sweet spot for populations will range from 30,000 to 35,000, pending on your soil type and the hybrids planted.

3.28_Population vs. Nitrogen Rate in 30 in. rows

2. Increasing nitrogen rates in higher populations will not always provide a positive ROI. (TRUTH)

This multi-location data supported that the EONR, regardless of hybrid tested, was 190 units of N/A. This, coincidently, was also the lowest rate tested. While yields did increase with the higher rates of N in 2016, the commodity prices and yield increases did not provide enough return to cover the additional cost of N.

It’s true that increased nitrogen rates do not always provide a positive ROI. In fact, more years than not, the sweet spot for N applications will be around 190 lb./A. Many farmers, however, may find this 2016 data hard to believe following the 2015 season. Why is that? In 2016, Midwest soils experienced exceptional mineralization of N. Mineralization is a biological process that occurs when the organic matter in the soil is consumed and burned, essentially releasing a natural form of N from the organic matter. There was also very little loss of this organic N from detrification. That being said, our soils in 2016 had ample amounts of N than what was needed to produce the crop, so the higher application rates were unnecessary and thus, a costly input.

In 2015 however, farmers experienced lower levels of mineralization. This, coupled with excessive rains throughout the growing season, meant maximum loss through detrification. Farmers who applied 100 percent of their N up front in the fall or spring were hit the hardest, as much of their applied N was lost and there was minimal organic N to supplement their crops.

This brings us to our final truth.

3. Split applying your nitrogen will pay more times than not. (TRUTH)

Year to year, soil to soil, and field to field, your ideal N rate is going to change. Rainfall, temperature, moisture, drainage and the hybrid you plant are all going to affect your final yield and ROI. And while Beck’s PFR will continue to evaluate seeding and N rates to provide farmers with the best standard protocols, there is one important message we can glean from this data today.

Split applying pays.

If you have the ability to split apply your N, then do it. Split applications significantly reduce our margin for error because by waiting, we have a better idea of how the season will pan out. If you decide to apply 100 percent of your N in the fall or early spring, you can’t go back and adjust to compensate for factors that are out of our control.

However, with a lower rate of N applied up front, you can come back later in the season and determine how much N has been mineralized (or lost to detrificiation) to better determine the ideal remaining rate. If we see another year like 2016 with excess organic N in the soil, you can reduce your N inputs, reduce your overall operational costs, and not sacrifice any yield because the N is already in the soil. If we experience heavy rains, split applications reduce our chance of loss and allow us to go back in and apply what is needed to provide us with the highest yielding crop possible.

If we could leave you with one takeaway from this study, it’s that time provides knowledge and knowledge is power. In this instance, power also means more money in your pocket.

To see the regional results of this study, click on the links below.

Beck’s PFR is the largest source of unbiased, cutting-edge agronomic information in the industry. More than 110 different studies were conducted in 2016, comparing over 150 products across multiple locations to learn how different management practices and new technologies perform in field environments. In evaluating agronomic practices and input products, not comparing seed products, Beck’s PFR aims to help farmers maximize their input dollars and increase their bottom line. To view more studies from the 2016 PFR book, click here .

Practical Farm Research (PFR)® is a registered trademark of Beck’s Superior Hybrids Inc.

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