Research aims to pinpoint ideal nitrogen application window

Research on nitrogen stabilizers at Discovery Farm west of Langham, Sask., aims to determine the ideal times to apply fertilizer and whether the application windows can be expanded.

“The goal is to show producers they could potentially have more time in the fall to apply anhydrous without risking loss,” said Rigas Karamanos, senior agrologist with Koch Agronomic Services. The company is funding the research as well as supplying equipment and product for the work.

The study will look specifically at the performance of Centuro, a nitrogen stabilizer used with anhydrous ammonia. Applications will be done in September, October, and spring 2021 before the research plots are seeded to canola. The project will evaluate different application methods, including broadcast, banding, and dribble banding, both with and without inhibitors.

Field will be conducted by Down to Earth Ag Research, the contracted supplier of research services for Discovery Farm.

How the research plots perform is expected to provide knowledge on preventing losses from leaching and denitrification, as well as the ideal window for anhydrous application.

In a perfect world, Karamanos said farmers would deep band their nitrogen, a practice he calls the gold standard. This is because the product is placed deep, at about seven to eight centimetres. Any off-gassing is caught and bound by the soil.

“What is happening is the farms are becoming larger and operational efficiencies are taking over agronomic efficiencies,” he said. “People do not want to band anymore because it’s slow. They want to go fast. So they broadcast. That’s where all these stabilizers come in.”

One of the challenges with nitrogen is to get it to stay put. Karamanos cites research that shows about 50 percent of applied nitrogen is taken up by the crop. Some of the remainder gets incorporated into soil organic matter by soil microbes.

But some of this fertilizer is lost to the atmosphere through denitrification. Here, microbial processes break down nitrates and nitrites into nitrogen gas and nitrous oxide. The latter is a powerful greenhouse gas and a serious concern in how farming responds to the challenges of climate change.

Nitrogen can also be lost through volatilization, a process where improperly applied anhydrous ammonia or urea fertilizers release ammonia, which, as a gas, dissipates in the atmosphere.

Stabilizers are designed to prevent volatilization. They also slow the process of nitrification, the natural process where ammonia is transformed into nitrite and nitrate.

“For fall applications, we’re looking at stabilizers that will prevent both volatilization and nitrification, the reaction,” Karamos said. “When you slow down nitrification, ultimately, you slow down denitrification.”

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