This subject matter has the propensity to be arduous, so we have created a dynamic, and digestible guide to help you better understand nitrogen and the important role it plays in crop production.
To start with we are going to give you some quick, bite sized facts.
Nitrogen is an element from the periodic table with the letter N to denote it. It is a reactive non-metal.
It plays an important role in farming across a broad range of applications. Mainly though you will hear about the role it plays in soil and how it can be the difference between a good yield and a poor yield.
The Basics of Nitrogen in Soil
Nitrogen is an important component to having a nutrient healthy soil. Without nitrogen in the soil, crops will find it difficult to grow effectively. With too much nitrogen in the soil, it will again cause complications and have adverse effects on your crop output.
Put simply, as a farmer that is concerned about maximum yield and best crop output, you will be actively monitoring and managing the level of nitrogen in your soil. Get it right and you will have a wonderful harvest. Mis-manage it and the results could be catastrophic.
Maintaining a balance of nitrogen is key to your harvest. But this is not as easy as the way nitrogen behaves in the soil is complex and not easily managed. So, this guide will go into detail about the complex behaviour of nitrogen and how to achieve the best results.
Nitrogen is a Difficult Element to Manage
Tying back to the original quick fact about nitrogen, it is a reactive element. This means that nitrogen will interact with other elements in your soil, this can work to your advantage or detriment depending on what reaction takes place. It is also a sensitive element and soil conditions will have an effect on how nitrogen behaves.
Nitrogen in soil takes many forms, it also easily and readily changes from one form to the next without much stimulus. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially is from one day to the next your nitric acid levels in your soil are completely different because the nitrogen has changed its form.
Local differences will also factor into how nitrogen behaves. Climate and weather inputs will drastically change the nature of nitrogen in the soil. If you are farming in a heavy rainfall environment you may find that nitrogen is happier to rest in the sitting water than in the soil. Likewise, if you are farming in a low rainfall area you may find that nitrogen doesn’t have the opportunity to move around easily in the soil and you may find areas of your field are nitrogen heavy and others are very nitrogen poor.
Once you understand your specific fields you will have a better understanding of how nitrogen will behave in your soil.
Nitrogen is an abundant element. This means, like oxygen, it is readily available from a multitude of sources and can easily find its way naturally into your soils. (If you’re lucky).
Here are some of the natural ways nitrogen will find its way to your soil.
- From the Atmosphere – Nitrogen is in the very air we breathe, and as we breathe, so do plants and soils. So, it is not uncommon for plants and soils to draw in and fixate on the nitrogen from the atmosphere.
- Precipitation – Nitrogen is also very reactive with water, and to this end will easily find its way to your soil through rainfall.
- Residual Crop – Organic matter tends to hold some level of nitrogen, so the crop residue from last year’s harvest will likely contain nitrogen and as it degrades this will likely find its way into the soil.
- Manures – Again like with the crop residue, animal droppings also contain some level of nitrogen, this means that again as it comes into contact with your soil it is likely to transfer some of it over.
As well as natural ways and methods that deposit nitrogen into your soil there are many ways that are non-natural and will help get nitrogen into the soil. Not least of all is fertiliser. Commercial fertilisers are often formulated to be nitrogen rich and will have the ability to get plenty of nitrogen into your soil (at least at surface level) very quickly.
When Nitrogen Changes
So, now we have an understanding of how nitrogen reacts and how it gets into the soil and why it is so important that we maintain good levels of nitrogen in the soil. But, we come now to the understanding of when nitrogen changes in the soil after it has been added either by nature or by man-made means.
Here are some quick facts about the types of changes that can occur to nitrogen;
Any organically deposited nitrogen can easily be converted to non-organic nitrogen when the nitrogen element goes through a process of mineralization. The process means that bacteria digest the organic material and as a by-product of this action release a nitrogen compound.
This process is for the most part, a positive one as the compound is better suited for regulating soil temperature, moisture levels and better suited for plant growth. This is an example of the good bacteria that you sometimes hear about.
Nitrification VS Denitrification
Another change that can occur is nitrification, this is a good process whereby at optimal temperature and moisture levels the nitrogen becomes water soluble and is absorbed well into the soil.
Denitrification is the opposite and should be considered bad in the context of farming. Denitrification is a bacterial process that converts the nitrogen to a compound that is easily absorbed by the atmosphere because it becomes a gas.
Natural Loss of Nitrogen
As well as giving, nature also takes nitrogen away from soils, so it is important to top up nitrogen levels when needed.
Denitrification is a prime example of a natural process that strips nitrogen from your soil but there are other ways that nature can take nitrogen out of your soil.
Remember, your crops themselves will draw nitrogen out of the soil, so it is important to understand that this may need to be accounted for, other than that, soil erosion of water damage can also strip your nitrogen levels quite considerably. If there is a lot of runoff in a field, you may find your nitrogen levels drop very quickly because the water is simply washing it away.
Better irrigation practices will go a long way to preventing the loss of nitrogen through the water system.
Managing Nitrogen Better
Hopefully, by now you should have a clearer understanding of nitrogen, what it does, how it reacts and changes as well as where it can be added and removed from your soils.
It is important to understand your soils optimum nitrogen level for your specific crop type and then actively monitor your nitrogen levels in your fields. The more consistently you can keep towards the optimum nitrogen level the better yield results you will see. In that respect is a simple practice of recording and monitoring information and adjusting where ever needed.
Don’t think it is an easy process though, because of the many changes and ways nitrogen can leave your soil, it can be a frustrating endeavour, especially if you had spent money fertilising a field to optimum levels only to have it washed away the next day.
Careful planning and sound understanding are your friends with nitrogen levels. We hope this article gets you off to a flying start.