Making the Most of your Nitrogen $$

Paying attention to detail in 2023 will win!

With todays environment of high input costs and tight margins, growers are looking for ways to reduce costs and increase yields. It is a tall order because a wheat crop still needs X amount of inputs to grow X amount of bushels. Nitrogen in particular has been in the hot seat for the last number of months due to the spread in cost between UAN % and Urea. The spread is significant enough for some growers to start questioning switching back to urea. However, in the last number of weeks, the UAN price has come down significantly compared to December pricing for those who have not bought product yet.

Both urea and UAN 28% will get the job done and produce acceptable yields if managed correctly. Over the years there has shown to be a slight yield gain with UAN 28%. However, with new application methods and nitrogen inhibitors, urea is right there with UAN 28%. The downfall of urea is the risk of poor quality product with lots of fines which can result in poor distribution. Wheat is a crop where precision nitrogen management is critical. Anyone who produces wheat can attest that nitrogen misses are quite noticeable, and yield will be significantly less in those areas that are missed. For many years those using UAN 28% with a sprayer were able to achieve precise and uniform application using a variety of streamer nozzle configurations and section control. This was one of the main reasons why producers switched from urea through pull type spreaders in the first place.

Until recently, sprayers have been the preferred method of nitrogen application for many. As equipment evolves and manufactures adapt to what growers are looking for, the technology available to apply granular products now is incredible. There are some airflow booms spanning 120ft and spinner spreaders that can accurately match this span. We are starting to see more and more European type spreaders enter the Ontario marketplace and they are certainly giving sprayers a run for their money. These spreaders come in a variety of configurations and are extremely precise. They have allowed growers to go back to granular products but remain on 90-120ft centres to run in the same tramline as the sprayer.  

Growers who hire this job done generally have more flexibility of choosing between UAN or Urea year to year. Hiring a floater with a spinner box or air boom can certainly get the job done. However, these machines are heavy and depending on soil type and ground conditions wheel tracks can persist across the field throughout the growing season. These machines can work well for an early application. Those who want to split will generally come back in later with UAN 28% or granular through a machine that can run in the sprayer tramlines.    

In hard red winter wheat production, the biggest downfall with UAN 28% is the ability to push nitrogen applications later in the season when targeting the “Protein Push” window. Once the flag leaf starts to emerge, UAN should not be used as the risk for burn is too great. Results from our Black Creek Research program have shown as much as a 5bu/ac decrease in yield when UAN is applied at the flag leaf stage. However, with newer application technology using granular nitrogen products can now be made well into the flag leaf stage. Using a product such as Amidas, there is minimal crop injury, and our research has shown a consistent gain up to 15bu/ac and up to 2% gain in protein.

One question we have been getting a lot this winter is “can we cut nitrogen rates”? The answer is NO! However, using tools such as the Stand Assessment Calculator will help tailor your nitrogen program to the potential of your crop and making the most of your nitrogen investment. Maybe a split application is needed? Maybe a nitrogen inhibitor is needed? Maybe a late “protein push” application is needed? These are some questions to ask your agronomist to figure out what program will best suit your operation.

There is no “one size fits all” approach as every operation is different. Determine your yield and protein goals, nitrogen budget and equipment capability and pick a product or combination of products that will achieve those goals while providing a positive return on investment. Great wheat can be produced using either product!

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