Eliminate the Guesstimate

July 25, 2014 09:19 PM
Eliminate the Guesstimate

New tool recommends N rates based on real-time analysis

As Nick Meier evaluates practices to help coax more bushels from each bag of seed corn, he is taking a closer look at the role nitrogen (N) plays in the process. Specifically, the northeast Iowa farmer, based near La Porte City, is fine-tuning how much N he uses and when he uses it, thanks to help from an online tool called Adapt-N.  

The program, developed by a team of scientists at Cornell University, led by Harold van Es, provides farmers with real-time, site-specific N analysis. The tool takes into consideration individual corn crop dynamics, soil types, field management practices and a combination of historical and up-to-the-moment weather data to calculate a course of action for N use. 

"You can run the tool daily, weekly or monthly. It will continually provide a report and predict how much nitrogen you saved, how much you lost and how much your crop needs at any given time," says Steve Sibulkin, CEO of Agronomic Technology Corp., which licensed the cloud-based program. 

The company launched Adapt-N in 28 states this spring, after three years of testing on 100,000 acres in 12 states. 

"This program is eliminating a lot of the guesswork in our nitrogen management," says Shannon Gomes, Meier’s agronomist and owner of Cedar Basin Crop Consulting in Decorah, Iowa. 

Meier and Gomes beta tested the tool in side-by-side, replicated strip trials, using 16-row equipment, during the 2011, 2012 and 2013 growing seasons. The latter two years were marked by weather extremes: a historic drought plagued 2012, while 2013 was marred by too much rainfall. The two men say the program recommendations were spot on both years.

In 2012, the tool advised Meier to not sidedress any anhydrous ammonia in the strips because the crop had not absorbed the N from the previous fall. That recommendation paid off as there was no yield difference at harvest between the N-treated and untreated corn, and Meier saved on product, application cost and time.  

In 2013, he saw the opposite scenario. The tool, indicating fall-applied N had leached after excessive spring rains, recommended Meier sidedress 80 lb. of N per acre. He complied on the majority of his corn crop but, as a point of comparison, used only 50 lb. of N in the strips. The portion that received additional N netted Meier a 14-bu.-per-acre yield increase.

Based on a decade of university research and multiregional, on-farm testing producers can expect to net about $38 per acre in profit, Sibulkin says. This comes in either saved costs or improved corn yield results as a result of using Adapt-N. 

Not cheap insurance. The fact that N plays a pivotal role in corn production, coupled with its impact on the environment, makes it paramount that the input is applied accurately and responsibly, says Greg Kneubuhler, consulting agronomist and owner of G&K Concepts Inc., in Harlan, Ind.

"Different soil types, slopes, drainage, organic matter and Mother Nature affect nitrogen; you can’t treat every corn acre with an average nitrogen rate if you’re going to do a better job of nitrogen management," he says.

In 2013, Kneubuhler retrospectively compared N-application rates prescribed by Adapt-N to what his customers actually applied. He says the tool recommendations matched the rates of N he prescribed to farmers in all but a few instances.

Gomes had similar results in Iowa. "The model has done a good job about 90% of the time," he says. "When it’s underestimated N, say we were 3 bu. or 4 bu. short, compared to normal yields, economically it wouldn’t have paid to put on more N because of the cost of that application."  

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