Digitizing Your Farm’s Nitrogen Management Plan Has Never Been More Important

Granular Agronomy Science Manager Bob Gunzenhauser

A better understanding of the effects of nitrogen on soil health, plus increasing concern over the impact of nitrogen on the environment, means farmers need digital nitrogen management tools now more than ever before.

Bob Gunzenhauser — Granular Agronomy Science Manager

Back in 2013, I applied 150 lbs of nitrogen on my cornfield. Then it got wet.

I wasn’t sure what to do. Would my initial application suffice, despite the rain? How bad could it be? And, if it applied more, would I spend more money than I might gain back in yield?

That was the first time I used a digital nitrogen modeling tool. It told me — despite my doubts — to apply another 50 lbs. The gains in yield would offset the extra input costs. Otherwise, my yield would be disappointing. The modeling was right — I ended up with a good harvest, covered the additional expense and salvaged what would have been a disappointing year in corn for Gunzenhauser Farms.  

Since then, farmers like me have realized just how handy digital nitrogen modelling is for their farm’s operation. Granular’s nitrogen management monitoring tools, powered by Corteva’s agronomy science and analytics, are among our most popular features. Dialling in their nitrogen applications with the precision of data science means farmers make more money.

2019 research on Illinois farms found that every 10 pounds of nitrogen applied over “maximum return to nitrogen” (MRTN) represented a wasted cost of between $3.7 and $5 per acre (depending on the type of fertilizer used). A 1,000-acre farm that applied 50 lbs more nitrogen than they needed would have $25,000 less net income. Considering 2021 urea costs are skyrocketing, missing the mark on nitrogen rates can result in a significant financial hit.

But making more money is rapidly becoming just one of many reasons farmers need to digitize their nitrogen management. Environmental concerns are squeezing farms to do a better job of managing nitrogen. Meanwhile, we are experiencing an explosion of new information about the effects of nitrogen on soil chemistry dependent upon how farms use and apply their nitrogen, the field practice choices they make and other products they use.

The big takeaway is that even though we know more, nitrogen management isn’t getting any easier. Just the opposite.

My dilemma in the spring of 2013 — Should I add more nitrogen? — was relatively simple, in hindsight. But today’s farmers are evaluating a much more complex set of data when it comes to how nitrogen can be best optimized for their farm operations. And if they aren’t, regulations are likely coming down the pipeline that will force them to.

Coming Up Next, Digitally Predicting Nitrogen’s Effect on Your Farm’s Soil Microbiome

For an agronomy nerd like me, the information we can glean these days about our soil chemistry and microbiome is fascinating. In the past five years alone, as an industry we’ve become a lot smarter about:

  • The microbiology behind many of the critical transformation processes of nitrogen and other nutrients
  • The species live in the soil and what they do
  • The effects of warm versus cold weather on the soil microbiome and what triggers more (or less) conversion of ammonia to nitrate
  • The microbiome’s relationship to plant nitrogen uptake, and how different biological products may or may not affect the microbiome in farm-specific conditions.

All this information is fascinating but complicated. Especially when each farm has its unique ecosystem to consider. That’s why digital tools are becoming even more critical for good nitrogen management. With digital, we can run thousands of simulations without ever putting a single product on the ground, gleaning from the knowledge of other farms combined with our own, on-farm experience, weather and soil conditions. 

As digital companies like Granular learn and evolve side-by-side with this new, exciting platform of soil health knowledge, our digital tools will become more sophisticated in their nitrogen management predictions.

Be Ready for More Nitrogen Regulations

Most agricultural pundits agree that farmers will inevitably be held to task for their nitrogen management use.

There are increasing worries over nitrogen emissions, a potent greenhouse gas. In the U.S., the agriculture sector contributes 9.3% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, approximately 55% of that is from atmospheric nitrogen. Practices that increase soil nitrogen levels, such as fertilizing, manuring and even growing legumes, are increasing areas of concern. The EPA calls nitrogen pollution of wells and waterways “one of America’s most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems.” 

So far, with some state and regional exceptions, the regulatory approach to better agricultural management of nitrogen resources has been with a carrot (rather than a stick) approach. Federally the NRCS encourages farmers to manage their nitrogen through an EQIP pay-out incentive program. But many people believe incentive programs aren’t enough. As a recent piece in popular publication covering agriculture and food systems asked — “Fertilizer is a major pollutant. Why doesn’t the government regulate it as one?”

Even with pushback from the agricultural lobbyists, more nitrogen management regulations are likely in the works. 

So, what can farmers do? They can take the bull by the horn — aka, manage their nitrogen before the government tells them to.

Digital Tools Put You in the Nitrogen Management Driving Seat

It isn’t all bad news when it comes to nitrogen management. The future of nitrogen management actually looks pretty optimistic — even financially positive — when we consider the ability of digital tools to help us with it.

A better understanding of how to manage the effects of nitrogen on the soil microbiome, combined with increasing worries over the harmful effects of nitrogen overapplication, need the AI-powered, predictive analysis that nitrogen management digital tools can provide.

For farmers who do digitize, this becomes a win-win situation.

Perhaps you’ve been applying 190 lbs of nitrogen for your corn crop, though the standard prescription calls for 150. It’s risky to underapply. What about that one year, when you need more? So, rather than gamble on a potential loss in yield, you add a buffer and apply an extra 40 lbs to be on the safe side. 

With digital, we can show that you may not need that extra buffer. Then, we can level up our predictive abilities even higher. We can model what happens if you use that new biologic product your agronomic adviser is suggesting, change your management practices or adjust the timing of your application. Digital tools can run thousands of projections to figure out how you can maximize your soil’s microbiome to the point you may not even need the standard 150 lbs in the first place. And when you do have a bad season (like my wet 2013 spring), we can still model just how much you may need to adjust to offset any yield losses, and the optimum time to apply to make the biggest bang for your buck.

This level of precision helps the farmer’s bottom line, as we already know. But it also reduces excess nitrogen management while creating a verifiable plan, a data set and a digital record of the actions taken toward responsible nitrogen use. Plus, over time, digital tools monitor the effects of less nitrogen on your farmland, showing year-to-year results that validate the farmers’ environmentally-sound decisions. 

Nitrogen management becomes a net positive, saving farmers money while proving we are partners in better environmental health. Not the enemy.

Granular’s Role in Making Your Nitrogen Management Easy

From my perspective, the role of digital ag companies like Granular is to take this increasingly complex world of nitrogen management and develop tools that farmers and their certified service advisors can easily use to take “the hassle out” of nitrogen management.  

The last thing we want farmers to do is to find precision nitrogen management so cumbersome and complicated that they say, “oh, the heck with it,” set their application rate and flat rate apply to all their ground. The role of digital ag isn’t to farm your farm for you but to make farming easier for you — especially when the farming decisions themselves are getting more challenging.

Looking into my crystal ball, I have to say nitrogen management and nitrogen use responsibilities won’t be getting any less complicated for farmers. But, on the plus side, digital nitrogen management tools and a better understanding of nitrogen will help farmers use their nitrogen a lot more effectively and, as a result, more responsibly.

Learn More About Digital Nitrogen for Your Farm

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