Heat, drought force Nebraska farmers to balance nitrogen more closely

The efficient use of nitrogen isn’t just about crop yields and profits.
No industry faces bigger challenges during severe drought than Nebraska's farmers.
Published: Oct. 7, 2022 at 11:02 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Every farmer in Nebraska knows there’s not a drop of water to spare. So when you find yourself with a little leftover nitrogen after losing corn crop due to climate challenges, do the math and take it.

“It is very important on those fields that have drought-stressed yields to do soil samples so you know how much nitrogen is out there,” Chapman corn and soybean farmer Gary Greving said. “So if you’re gonna put on 200 units of nitrogen to get 200 bushels, but you’ve got 100 units [of nitrogen remaining] out there already then just put the hundred on and go from there.”

In those cases, Greving says farmers might actually save money by buying less nitrogen, which comes at a premium price due to lingering supply chain issues if winter weather doesn’t wash away the surplus.

“With our nitrogen management systems at the Central Platte NRD we are required to [soil test] and sample our water,” Greving said. “That’s going to be very important to manage that issue out in the fields and even more so in the fields that were dry land, only rain-fed, which it was not rain-fed this year...It is still a topic of discussion about our irrigated ground every fall and every spring on what we can put on to maximize our yield with the minimum amount of nitrogen.”

Brian Johnson’s family has been farming in Wayne County for 150 years. Now they grow mainly corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. His grandfather’s way of doing things doesn’t hold water in these times. It’s all about technology and knowing what each section of cropland can handle, while also adapting each year to changes.

“Just planning dates have been huge,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some [fields] now that are over 150, we planted some two weeks later, we’re only doing 70. That’s the same number of corn, everything, same field. The heat, the drought, everything.”

Nebraska Extension Water and Crops Educator Jeremy Milander help farmers like Johnson be more efficient. Milander works at the Haskell Agricultural Laboratory and farm in Concord, where he was able to demonstrate a type of testing recommended in the fall. Stalk testing is done before corn is turned to feed to assure the nitrogen levels aren’t too high for livestock to eat.

“You can use that along with a lot of other information as well to gauge how effective your nitrogen management is,” Milander said.

He also reminds us that the efficient use of nitrogen isn’t just about crop yields and profits. It’s also about keeping nitrogen levels in groundwater down, to keep community water safe as well.