Nitrogen is widely considered to be the most important nutrient that is essential to growing healthy, vibrant crops on your farm. It really doesn’t matter where your farm is, what the weather is like or the crops you are growing: without nitrogen rich soil, you’re not going to have any success.
Over time with poor farm management your fields can run low on nitrogen. There are a few organic ways to boost up nitrogen in your fields, but most of us don’t have the time. No worries, there’s a seemingly simple way to boost nitrogen levels: N fertiliser.
But as many practiced farmers will know, N fertiliser can also cause many problems if not managed correctly.
Nitrogen can leach when applied incorrectly. It can run off in water into nearby water supplies, move into different fields and damage the ecosystem. It can also blow off in the top layer of soil or wear off before your crops even have a chance to adsorb it. Even worse; it could create a fantastic field for weeds to take over, leaving no space for your crops.
Not only do you lose money as your crops aren’t getting that essential nitrogen, but you’re also wasting even more time and money reapplying nitrogen time and time again.
Clearly this is a big problem that farmers should address. So, here are 5 ways that you can use to make your nitrogen fertilising much more efficient.
1 – Managing Irrigation and Water Flow
As just mentioned, one of the ways your nitrogen fertiliser instantly goes to waste is through leaching in water supplies. It just takes one night of heavy rain to have all that nitrogen washed away.
So, you need to manage water. When it comes to the weather all you can do is plan carefully using weather data from previous seasons. You can also gather data on the water levels in your fields, and where any underground streams lead to: work out where the nitrogen goes and try to put a stop to the damage it could cause there.
As for making sure your crops have enough water and nitrogen supply throughout their growing period, there is one high-tech solution that instantly springs to mind: drip irrigation. Figaro are just one irrigation company to bring this new tech to the average farmer. By installing underground fabric pipes into your fields, they gradually “drip” water and nutrients to your crops. But the water only soaks into the soil when the water level and pressure drops enough, so you never release more water and nitrogen than is needed. Ingenious.
2 – Gradually Build Up Soil Health
Try to remember that just applying nitrogen to the soil is a quick fix. For a long term solution that really pays off you need to work on improving the soil health of your fields altogether.
A good crop rotation and cover crops can boost your fields to the point you only need a little fertiliser here and there to cover dry spots. Pick nitrogen fixing crops and legumes like red clover and hairy vetch to sow into your fields during the off seasons when they would otherwise stay empty. This can give you a nitrogen boost as well as preventing soil erosion.
You can also help to lock in nitrogen while your crops are growing. Try sowing cover crops dispersed amongst the rest of your crops during growing season – pick cover crops that use very little nitrogen, so they leave plenty for your crops and soak up any excess water that would cause nitrogen to run off the fields otherwise.
Make sure to plan your cover crops and rotations carefully; recording data and using it to make smart decisions about which cover crops are needed where. This is a very organic, profitable way to boost the nitrogen on your farm without going heavy with the chemicals.
3 – Fertilise Only When It’s Needed
It sounds simple but it’s quite essential. There’s really no point fertilising your fields months in advance of the crops – only some of that fertiliser will stay on your fields until it’s ready to sow, with most of the nitrogen drifting off and potentially causing damage.
Fertilise when it is needed, so right before you plant your crops and during the season. Monitor and plan your fertilising so that you’re not wasting a single drop.
To work out when nitrogen is really needed, you should be doing soil tests regularly. Every couple of years will suffice. You might find that actually your fields are full of nitrogen and it must be an outside factor that’s causing your crops to underperform… or you may find that your fields are in a far worse state than you originally thought. Once you have that data, plan your fertilising schedule with the crops you’ve chosen to grow in mind.
You might find that it works out more profitable to pick a less nitrogen dependent crop this year, followed by a nitrogen fixing cover crop to get the fields ready for the following season. Long term results!
4 – Think Positively!
So, the results from your soil tests might not be all that you hoped for… but that’s no reason to be negative. If you don’t face your nitrogen problems head on they will only grow. So, get positive, stop thinking about the negatives and focus your mind on how you can make huge improvements to see your farm become a huge success.
If you can’t seem to find the solution to your particular nitrogen problem – leaching onto neighbouring fields, for example – get help from your local university or college. You can also get lots of advice from farming forums online. You don’t have to face it all alone.
Also, you need to consider that farmers are under increasing pressure to use sustainable methods to feed the growing population. We estimate that it won’t be long before you’ll need to demonstrate efficient nitrogen fertilising to your local governing body. Why not get ahead of the crowd and make a start now?
5 – Use Precision Agriculture
All the previously mentioned methods fall under precision agriculture when you think about it. Micro-managing the nitrogen levels in your fields relies on a lot of precision agriculture tools, from data collecting to spraying to maintaining. To be truly efficient you need to be very exact with your nitrogen to reduce waste as much as possible.
Precision agriculture often requires you to do a lot of analysis of data, so now is a good time to make sure all your tech is up to date. Do your farming machines and sprayers do as you set them or do they leak everywhere? Do you record all your data or just put some estimates in the spreadsheet every month or so? You won’t be able to tell if you’ve made a difference to your farm if you don’t record all the data, even if it seems insignificant right now.
There are all sorts of devices that can help you record and store data – there’s something for every budget and we think they are well worth making the investment!
Feeling slightly underwhelmed? It’s true that most of the methods we have to create a more efficient nitrogen fertilising farm aren’t anything new. We’ve covered most in individual articles before and you’ve maybe given a couple a try yourself by now. But this just shows how incredibly effective these methods can be if you really invest in them.
It’s worth repeating over and over again how much you can improve the productivity of your farm by investing in precision agriculture. You can do more for you farm than just improved yields. Make serious changes and reap serious rewards!
As always, let us know your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to share this article with your friends and neighbours so we all can use our nitrogen more effectively.