Spring soil nitrogen following the drought of 2012
It might be difficult to get the deep (1 to 2-ft) samples in fields where soils remain wet. We think the 1-ft sample will show us how much N rate adjustment might be appropriate. Those willing and able to take samples from the second foot are encouraged to do so, however.
It is best to take samples before any N has been applied in the spring, though we can avoid the band if, for example, some starter was used at planting and sampling is done after that. Combine in a bucket enough samples to represent the area you want to represent, and take a subsample of this to send to the lab for analysis. Soils should be sent for analysis as soon as possible, and kept refrigerated if needed, to minimize N transformations before analysis.
Adjusting N rates based on spring sampling
The pre-sidedress N test (PSNT) and the pre-plant N test (PPNT) were developed to make N rate adjustments based on N already present in the spring. Adjustments are not generally suggested if the soil has less than 10 ppm of nitrate-N in the top 6-7 inches (10 ppm is about 20 lb. of nitrate-N per acre), and no additional fertilizer N is suggested if the surface soil has more than 25 ppm nitrate-N (some states use 20 and some use 30 ppm as this limit). Fertilizer N rates are decreased as surface soil nitrate-N increases from 10 to 25 ppm.
Because of uncertainty in sampling, many universities suggest making adjustments as ranges; for example, the N application rate might be reduced by 30 to 50 lb. N per acre if the soil has 10 to 15 ppm of nitrate-N; by 60 to 120 lb. N if the soil has 15 to 20 ppm, etc. In practice, adjusting N rate based on nitrate-N present has often been most useful in fields where a lot of organic N – from manure or forage legumes were grown previously – was added, in which case it is a test for how much N mineralized. Spring soil N testing also requires sampling and then waiting for results during a busy time. But it can be used if we suspect that there are more than normal amounts of soil N. In cases where there has been wet weather and some N loss, it can also be used to help decide whether or not to make a supplemental N application.
While the University of Illinois has not actively promoted the use of the PPNT or PSNT, it is logical to apply less than full N rates if spring samples show an appreciable amount of soil N already present. We think that a reasonable way to do this is to calculate lb. nitrate-N per acre (ppm of nitrate-N in the top foot times 4) and to subtract this from the normal N rate. It may be safer not to make any adjustments if nitrate-N is less than 10 ppm, since we would consider low levels to be normal. But as an example, finding 20 ppm in a sample would suggest a reduction of 80 lb. N per acre in the fertilizer N rate. That’s conservative – 30 ppm would rule out any more N under the PSNT guidelines in use, but would mean lowering rate by 120 lb. based on what we’re proposing here.
Sampling uncertainty does mean some uncertainty in N rate adjustments. That’s a concern, especially if we sample only a small area in the field. So spring resampling in only the small area where fall samples were taken under the N-Watch program, while it meets the important objective of measuring changes from fall to spring, may not be adequate for making adjustments for a whole field. At minimum, samples taken for N rate adjustments should be taken from different soil types in a field to see if soil N levels have enough consistency to warrant adjustments.