Originally published March 18, 2016
Since writing the article yesterday that discussed estimating nitrogen (N) losses in corn following flooding events (http://louisianacrops.com/2016/03/18/corn-with-all-the-flooding-how-much-nitrogen-have-you-lost/), many new questions have been raised by producers. They are concerned that young corn will need to have the N replaced quickly after the flooding waters drain off fields in order to replace lost N and maximize the yield potential of the corn. This is a valid concern especially if little N is left in the soil after the floods recede or if N has not been applied at all and the corn is reaching the rapid vegetative growth stages. For example, a 200-bushel-per-acre corn crop will take up approximately 200 pounds of N during the growth and development of the crop. Seedling corn, prior to the V6 stage of development (6th leaf collar) will take up very little N, approximately 5% of its seasonal need. However, from V6 to VT (tasseling) corn will take up approximately 60% of its seasonal needs, or about 120 pounds of N for a 200-bushel corn crop. If that N is not available during that rapid growth period (approximately 30 days), then yield losses are certain to occur.
As the flood waters recede, many producers have questions about the best way to replenish the lost fertilizer N quickly to avoid yield losses. Most soils in north Louisiana are too wet to apply N with ground rigs, so that removes the potential to band or knife-in liquid N fertilizers. The only application method currently available to supply a large rate of N is to surface broadcast granular N fertilizer sources such as ammonium sulfate (21-0-0-24) and urea (46-0-0). Urea is less expensive than ammonium sulfate per pound of N; however, it also has the potential to volatilize. The volatility potential of ammonium sulfate is minimal. Volatilization is the conversion of ammonium (a solid) to
ammonia (a gas), which will be lost to the atmosphere. Trials evaluating urea volatility potential of N fertilizers have been conducted at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station over the past several years. Trials have shown that 30% or more of the N from urea surface broadcast on a dry soil can be lost by ammonia volatilization in a 10-day period of time. Of course, rates of volatilization can vary considerably across soil types. Typically, higher pH soils will have a greater N volatility potential as compared to acidic soil. Treating urea with a urease inhibitor with the active ingredient NBPT or NPPT will protect the urea from volatilization for a given amount of time, depending on soil properties and environmental conditions. In the same studies mentioned above, urease inhibitors greatly reduced ammonia volatility for a 10-day period when applied onto a dry soil. Incorporation of urea into the soil by irrigation or rainfall will minimize volatilization losses. Therefore, if incorporating N into the soil by irrigation or rainfall soon after application is not a possibility, then a urease inhibitor is recommended.
Surface soil moisture will have a tremendous effect on the volatility potential of urea. Typically, urea applied on a dry soil will begin to slowly volatilize initially, but the rate of volatilization really takes off around three days after application. When urea is applied onto a soil that is saturated (without standing water), the rate of volatilization will begin much quicker, and the potential for volatilization losses over a given period of time will be much higher. Figure 1 above, which came from a volatilization trial conducted at the Rice Research Station in 2014, illustrates this phenomenon.
Addition of a urease inhibitor will help in reducing the amount of volatilization losses when urea is applied on a soil without standing water. However, the protection time is generally cut in half. Therefore, the 10-day protection time may only be five days if applied on a moist soil. If the urease inhibitor treated urea is dropped into standing water, the NBPT will not give you any protection.
With all that said, if the soil is too wet for ground equipment and your corn needs N as soon as possible, then you must choose between applying granular ammonium sulfate and urea by air. If urea is your fertilizer of choice, then it is best to wait to apply the N (from an N-efficiency standpoint) when the surface of the soil becomes dry. Applications of urea treated with a urease inhibitor will enable applications onto a soil with a wet soil surface without significant N losses for a few days. Expect large losses of N from urea if it is not treated with a urease inhibitor and it is applied onto a soil with a moist soil surface. Expect even greater losses of N from urea if it is applied into standing water.