Urea – A Poor Choice of Nitrogen Fertilizer for In-Season N Applications

John Deere tractor in corn field

 

Summary

  • Urea fertilizer, if not incorporated by tillage or precipitation, is highly susceptible to ammonia volatilization (loss to the atmosphere as ammonia gas).
  • Uniform application of urea can be problematic due to segregation of larger and smaller urea prills and due to physical spread pattern interference from standing corn during in-season applications.
  • Liquid UAN (32 or 28%) is only 50% urea and is about half has susceptible to ammonia volatilization as dry urea.
  • Banding UAN further reduces the probability of nitrogen loss via ammonia volatilization.
  • Averaged over 3 on-farm plots side-dressing surface banded UAN gave 16.2 $/ac greater net returns and yielded 5.5 bu/ac more than surface broadcasted urea.

Urea, anhydrous ammonia and liquid urea ammonium nitrate (UAN 28 or 32%) are by far the most common sources of nitrogen fertilizer used in corn production. Moreover, all 3 sources of nitrogen fertilizer have their own unique advantages and disadvantages, but in particular, dry urea is an exceptionally poor source of nitrogen for in-season applications to corn. At first glance, urea seems to be an attractive in-season nitrogen source, because it can be applied rapidly with high clearance dry spinner spreaders and urea is commonly a few cents per lb of nitrogen cheaper than UAN. Urea, however, is highly susceptible to N loss via ammonia volatilization and uniform fertilizer nitrogen distribution can be a serious problem for top yields and maximizing economic returns.

Dry Urea: Elevated Risk for N Loss via Ammonia

Ammonia volatilization occurs when the urease enzyme hydrolyzes urea fertilizer to ammonia on the soil surface. Given ammonia (NH3) is a gas and lighter than air, the ammonia literally floats away into the atmosphere. The most effective way to prevent ammonia volatilization is for urea hydrolysis to occur beneath the soil surface where the ammonia gas can interact with hydrogen ions to form ammonium (NH4+).

To avoid serious N loss, urea must be incorporated with tillage, moved below the soil surface by precipitation or subsurface injected. For in-season N application, however, physical incorporation or injection of dry urea is not practical, leaving a rainfall event that must exceed 0.5 inches to move the urea below the soil surface (figure 1). This significant rainfall event must occur no later than 4 days after urea application (figure 2) or N loss from ammonia volatilization could drastically accelerate in subsequent days (Jones et al., 2013). UAN is also susceptible to ammonia volatilization, but only 50% of the nitrogen in UAN is urea. Therefore, UAN is roughly half as susceptible to ammonia volatilization as dry urea.

irrigation rate graph

UAN also provides more flexibility regarding in-season applications than dry urea. UAN can be subsurface injected or surface banded within the row. Subsurface injection of UAN strongly reduces the potential for ammonia volatilization because urea hydrolyses occurs below the soil surface. Banding UAN on the soil surface does not eliminate ammonia volatilization, but reduces the risk of ammonia volatilization considerably (figure 2, Jones et al., 2013). The reduction in ammonia volatilization risk with banding UAN occurs because banding physically reduces the amount of N fertilizer exposed to the urease enzyme.

Field with low Urea rate stripes

Poor Fertilization: Increases Yield Loss Risk

Achieving uniform application with dry fertilizer, which includes urea, can be a difficult task. Several problems exist that can lead to non-uniform urea applications. If urea is not uniformly sized, the result is segregation of larger and smaller urea particles during loading, transportation to the field and during spreading. Particle segregation is a problem because larger urea granules are thrown further from the dry spinner spreader machine than smaller particles, resulting in a higher application rate directly behind the machine and a lower applications rate at the edges of each pass.

Segregation is not the only concern. When side-dressing corn, poor urea distribution can be exacerbated by the standing corn crop, particularly when corn reaches over a few feet in height. Tall corn acts as a funnel, cutting down the distance at which the urea granules can be thrown compared to when no crop was present to disrupt the flow of urea toward the edges of each pass.

On-Farm comparisons: Broadcast Urea vs. Surface Banded UAN as In-Season N Sources

The on-farm studies were conducted at 3 locations in the 2016 growing season. The locations included Elkhorn, WI, Tipton and Morning Sun, IA. The base and side-dress N rates used at each location are listed in table 1. At each location the side-dress nitrogen was applied at growth stages between V6 to V8 as either surface banded UAN or surface broadcasted urea. At each location these treatments were replicated 3 or 4 times. The price of UAN and urea used to calculate partial profit was 0.36 and 0.32 $/lb N. The price of corn used to calculate partial profit was 3.50/bu.

Surface Banded UAN vs Surface Broadcasted Urea chart

Averaged over the 3 locations yields were increased 5.5 bu/ac from surface banded UAN when compared to surface broadcast urea (table 2 and figure 3). In addition to higher yields from surface banding UAN vs broadcasting urea, net profits were 16.2 $/ac higher for the surface banded UAN treatments, despite slightly higher nitrogen costs (table 3).

Table 1table 2table 3

Summary

Because urea cannot be physically incorporating post-planting, it is susceptible to loss via ammonia volatilization (loss to the atmosphere as NH3 gas). Moreover, uniform application with dry fertilizer, including urea, can be problematic due to segregation of larger and smaller urea prills and due to physical spread pattern interference from standing corn. For these reasons, urea is a particularly poor source of nitrogen fertilizer for in-season applications. In these 3 on-farm trials surface banding UAN increased yields 5.5 bu/ac and net profits 16.2 $/ac compared to surface broadcasting dry urea.

Reference

Jones, C., B.D. Brown, R. Horneck, D. Olson-Rutz. 2013. Management to Minimize Nitrogen Fertilizer Volatilization. Extension Publication EB0209. Montana State University. http://www.landresources.montana.edu /soilfertility/documents/PDF/pub/UvolBMPEB0209.pdf.

 

– Dr. Jacob Vossenkemper (Agronomy Research Lead)

Breaking News: Fall Anhydrous is not a Best Management Practice in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy

The INRS is a science based study of the various best practices framers can implement to reduce the loss of Nitrogen and Phosphorus in Iowa. Watch the video to learn what management practices are recommended for top yields and environmental stewardship.

The goal of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is to reduce Nitrogen losses by 41% and Phosphorus losses by 29%. In turn, this will improve yield, soil health and water quality throughout the state of Iowa.  Not only will this improve nutrient levels in Iowa’s waters but also in areas down stream, including the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, visit their website: https://4rplus.org/iowa-nutrient-reduction-strategy/