- Author: Michelle Leinfelder-Miles
- Author: Dan Putnam
- Author: Rachael Long
A question came to me from a crop consultant. His alfalfa grower asked him how he could increase crude protein (CP) in his alfalfa. The buyer of the alfalfa, for the most part, is happy with the hay. For example, the buyer is happy with the total digestible nutrients (TDN), but he would like to see a little higher CP. The consultant said that the grower is generally on a 28-day cutting cycle and is generally cutting the hay pre-bloom. He wondered if nitrogen (N) fertilizer would help to improve CP.
The best way to improve CP is to: 1) cut early, 2) choose a more dormant variety (but give up yield), and 3) manage the harvest to retain the leaf fraction. Since this grower is already cutting pre-bloom, and since the grower is not yet replanting, that would leave option 3. Retaining the leaf fraction is important because the protein content of the leaves is higher than that in the stems. Trying not to rake the hay when it is especially dry might help to retain the leaves.
Let's now focus on the consultant's question of whether N fertilizer could help to improve CP. The UC Irrigated Alfalfa Management production manual states that N fertilizer has resulted in higher CP in some instances but that an equal or higher number of trials showed no improvement to CP with N fertilizer. Dan Putnam, Rollie Meyer, Vern Marble, and other forage researchers have, for a long time, recommended against fertilizing alfalfa with N. This is based upon field data, economics, and logic!
1. Forage Quality. While N fertilizers can (in some cases) increase the apparent CP of the forage by a point or two, this "protein" is not actually well utilized by ruminants. N fertilizer usually results in a higher non-protein nitrogen content (NPN) which is NOT protein, but free N in various forms (e.g. nitrate or free amino acids), which is immediately released into the rumen upon ingestion and forms ammonia. The ammonia must be excreted by the animal at a metabolic cost (ATP), so it is actually costing feed energy. It also results in excess urea in the manure. So, even though it looks like the protein is a little higher, it isn't actually. Remember, CP is measured N content (not just protein) multiplied by 6.25.
2. Economics. Small differences in yield are sometimes (not always) observed with applied N; however, those are rarely economically advantageous. Remember that the uptake levels of alfalfa are very high. A 10-ton Central Valley alfalfa crop will remove about 700 lbs of N, which with losses, one would need to apply close to 1,000 lbs N/year to meet the N needs of the crop. One could never cost-effectively fertilize to satisfy this need.
3. Losing your free N. N applications or high soil N have the tendency of suppressing N2 fixation by making the Rhizobium lazy. Fertilizers would mostly just replace fixed N. Atmospheric N contributions to alfalfa growth are a major environmental benefit, and it's a shame not to take advantage of it.
4. Weeds. N applications encourage weeds, especially grasses. This negatively impacts quality.
5. Trade-off with Energy. Keep in mind that some alfalfa hay crops that have low N and low CP also have high TDN (energy values) such as the well-managed Intermountain spring cut hays grown under cool temperatures. This is due to dilution - if carbohydrates accumulate in the leaves, (e.g. 5-8 percentage points higher), then CP (and NDF/ADF) will be lower. When something goes up, something else goes down. Since energy tends to be more valuable in the marketplace, however, this is a good thing!
Having said all of this, there are some rare situations where N fertilization may be helpful to get the crop going after the roots have been compromised, but even these are unusual. Rachael Long detailed this in the blog When is N fertilization to alfalfa beneficial? Almost Never!
Dan Putnam does have a lingering question about applying N fertilizer in alfalfa and that is whether very small amounts (e.g. via drip irrigation) might be effective at hastening regrowth after each cutting. Growers using drip have done this, and Dan thinks it could work with overhead sprinklers or with buried drip lines where the N can be 'spoon fed' and carefully managed. We need data, however, to prove whether or not this would be effective. Dan suspects the differences would be minor.
- Author: Michelle Leinfelder-Miles
- Right source: selecting the fertilizer source that matches the crop need and minimizes losses,
- Right rate: applying the right amount based on crop need and nutrient availability through other sources,
- Right time: applying the nutrient when the crop can use it,
- Right place: fertilizer placement that optimizes the crop's ability to use it.
The four R's address management considerations (e.g. fertilizer program, irrigation), but site characteristics (e.g. soil, cropping system, weather conditions) also influence N recovery in the crop. Also important to improving crop N recovery is understanding barriers to adopting best management practices, such as costs or risks to crop quality or yield.
While the four R's articulate four principles for N management, the N cycle in cropping systems is complicated. Nitrogen can be introduced and lost by various paths. We generally add N with organic matter amendments – such as crop residues, compost, or manure – or with fertilizer. While organic matter amendments must be mineralized before the N is available for plant uptake, fertilizer N is readily available for plants to use. That said, plants generally take up N at different stages during their life cycle, and there is a risk for N loss if the N is applied or becomes available when the plants do not need it.
Technologies have been developed to mitigate N losses from cropping systems. These technologies are collectively known as enhanced efficiency fertilizers (EFF) and include additives, physical barriers, and chemical formulations that stop, slow down, or decrease fertilizer losses. Nitrogen stabilizers are one example and are fertilizer additives intended to improve crop N use efficiency and reduce N losses to the environment by interrupting the microbial processes that change N to its plant-available forms. We developed a trial to evaluate two N stabilizer products with the objective of determining whether the treatments improved corn silage yield or plant N status compared to fertilizer alone. We did not attempt to measure N losses from the system (e.g. leaching, denitrification), as these are very challenging to quantify.
The trial took place in San Joaquin County on a DeVries sandy loam soil. A description of the methods can be found in the full report. Sidedress fertilizer application occurred on June 21, 2018 and provided approximately 105 lbs N per acre (UAN 32). Four treatments were applied at sidedress, when plants were at V3-4 stage of development (Figure 1). The N stabilizers were applied at the label rates, and the treatments were: 1) Vindicate (Corteva Agriscience) at 35 fluid ounces per acre, 2) Agrotain Plus (Koch Agronomic Services) at 3 pounds per acre, 3) combination of Vindicate and Agrotain Plus at aforementioned rates, and 4) fertilizer-only, no stabilizer product (“untreated”). Treatments were randomly applied in three replicate blocks. Aside from the treatments, the trial was managed by the grower in the same manner as the field.
We evaluated soil N status, plant N status, and silage yield. Soil results are available in the full report. There were no statistically significant differences in plant N status or yield (Table 1). Mid-season (i.e. silking, R1) leaf N averaged 2.88 percent across treatments, and aboveground biomass N at harvest averaged 1.12 percent. At mid-season, leaf N from 2.7 to 3.5 percent indicates that the plant had sufficient N to carry the crop to harvest, and at harvest, aboveground biomass N from 1.0 to 1.2 percent indicates that the N fertilization program was adequate for maximizing yield. Thus, it appears that the trial was not deficient in N. Calculated to 30 percent dry matter, average yield across treatments was 38.8 tons/acre, and dry matter was 35 percent. There was a trend for the two treatments with Vindicate to have higher N removed than the two treatments without it, but the difference was not statistically significant.
In summary, N is part of a balanced, natural cycle in the environment and is the most important nutrient in cropping systems. Giving consideration to N management will help ensure that a greater fraction of the applied N is recovered in the harvested crop and not lost to the environment, and keeps growers in regulatory compliance. Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers, such as N stabilizers, have been shown to improve crop yield in regions like the Midwest and the Northeast, and may help to mitigate N losses to the environment. In our trial, we evaluated the efficacy of N stabilizer products for improvements in corn silage yield or plant N status compared to fertilizer alone. Under the management and environmental conditions of this trial, we found no differences in yield or plant N status; however, plant and soil tests indicated that N was not limiting in the trial. If N was lost from the system, the loss was not large enough to result in N limitation in the control. Future study should test these products using different N sources and N rates (e.g. grower rate versus grower rate minus 50 lbs N/acre). It may be possible to reduce the fertilizer N rate without sacrificing yield.
This trial was made possible with the generous cooperation of Hank Van Exel and Van Exel Farms; Carl Bannon and Steven Colbert (Corteva Agriscience); Brad Schrenk (Simplot); Eric Ellison (Koch Agronomic Services); Nick Clark and Daniel Geisseler (UCCE); and Shirley Alvarez, Cheryl Gartner, and Dan Rivers (UCCE technicians). An in-depth report is available from my website. Please don't hesitate to contact me with comments or questions./span>
- Author: Michelle Leinfelder-Miles
Here are a few articles, written by UC Cooperative Extension colleagues, that may be of interest to readers of this blog:
From the UC Rice Blog:
Armyworm vs. High Temperature Blanking - by Luis Espino, Farm Advisor, Colusa County
From the UC Dry Bean Blog:
UC Davis Dry Bean Field Day Announcement - by Rachael Long, Farm Advisor, southern Sacramento Valley
From the UC Small Grains Blog:
Start Planning Your Nitrogen Management Strategy for Fall-Planted Wheat Now - by Mark Lundy, Small Grains Specialist, UC Davis and Konrad Mathesius, Farm Advisor, southern Sacramento Valley
We are now in the second year of a project investigating how to estimate nitrogen (N) mineralization in mineral and organic soils. Nitrogen mineralization is the conversion of organic forms of N, which are not plant-available, to inorganic forms of N which are plant-available, like ammonium and nitrate. Mineralization occurs as a result of microbial decomposition of nutrients. Understanding N mineralization is important because it can help us apply N fertilizers more efficiently, by accounting for soil-available nutrients. Due to high groundwater nitrate concentrations, California growers are facing increasing pressure to improve N use efficiency in an effort to reduce nitrate leaching. To maintain competitive yields, however, growers need accurate estimates of soil-available N so that they can adjust fertilizer application rates with confidence.
In Spring 2016, the project team collected soil samples from 30 fields from Tulelake to Fresno County, including five sites in the Delta (having organic soils) and four other sites in San Joaquin County (having mineral soils). All of the fields were in annual crop rotations and had no recent legume cover crops or manure applications. The Delta soils had organic matter that ranged from about 6 to 23 percent; whereas, the soils from other areas of San Joaquin County had about 1.5 to 2 percent soil organic matter (SOM). The bulk density (i.e. the mass divided by volume) of the Delta soils averaged 0.9 g/cm3 compared to the mineral soils, which averaged 1.2 g/cm3. The reason it is important to measure the bulk density is because when soil nutrients are measured, they need to be converted from concentration to lbs/acre per foot of soil depth using a conversion factor. That factor will change depending on the bulk density.
In general, N mineralization was higher in the organic soils than the mineral soils, but it also varied more across the organic soils (Figure 1). When N mineralization is expressed as a percent of total soil N, however, mineral soils were more variable. This is likely due to the fact that the SOM is more stable in Delta soils than in mineral soils, where SOM is largely derived from recent crop residues. In other words, crop residues influence N mineralization more in mineral soils than in organic soils.
Figure 1. Net N mineralization rates of the 30 soils included in the study in 2016.
Preliminary results also show that soil temperature and other soil properties have a strong effect on N mineralization. The soil temperature effect has been modeled to show that as temperature increases, N mineralization increases exponentially. The soil properties which most influenced N mineralization included total soil N, total soil carbon (C), particulate organic C (a measure of the availability of organic matter to microbial decomposition), and pH. These soil variables are more predictive of N mineralization in organic soils than in mineral soils; more work is needed to determine which soil variables best help to predict N mineralization in mineral soils. Soil moisture likely also plays a role in N mineralization, and it will be studied in the future.
We are continuing the study again in 2017 and hope that the results will contribute to a better understanding of N mineralization in both organic and mineral soils, with the ultimate goal of developing an online decision-support tool for growers to help in estimating field-specific N mineralization rates.