, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 61-87

Large granules, nests or bands: Methods of increasing efficiency of fall-applied urea for small cereal grains in North America

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Abstract

In North America where the climate is cool enough only one crop is grown yearly, N fertilizers are sometimes applied in the previous fall rather than in the spring for fall- or spring-sown cereal grains. However, in areas where snow accumulates in winter, fall application of N fertilizers is generally inferior to spring application. Substantial nitrification takes place in winter and subsequent N loss occurs primarily in early spring by denitrification after the snow melt. Immobilization of N is also greater with fall- than spring-applied N fertilizers. Nitrogen is more efficiently retained in the soil as NH4 and thus more effectively used by plants if formation of nitrite (NO2) and NO3 is reduced or prevented by inhibiting nitrification. The nitrification is reduced when urea is placed in bands, because of high pH, ammonia concentration and osmotic pressure in the soil. The rate of nitrification is further reduced when urea is placed in widely-spaced nests (a number of urea prills placed together at a point below the soil surface) or as large urea granules (LUG) by reducing contact between the nitrifying bacteria and the NH4 released upon urea hydrolysis. A further reduction in nitrification from LUG can be obtained by addition of chemical nitrification inhibitors (such as dicyandiamide (DCD)) to LUG. The concentration of a chemical inhibitor required to suppress nitrification decreases with increasing granule size. The small soil-fertilizer interaction zone with placement of urea in nests or as LUG also reduces immobilization of fertilizer N, especially in soils amended with crop residues. The efficiency of fall-applied N is improved greatly by placing urea in nests or as LUG for small cereal grains. Yields of spring-sown barley from nests of urea or LUG applied in the fall are close to those obtained with spring-applied urea prills incorporated into the soil. Delaying urea application until close to freeze-up is also improved the efficiency of fall-applied N. This increased effectiveness of urea nests or LUG is due to slower nitrification, lower N loss over the winter by denitrification, and reduced immobilization of applied N. Fall application of LUG containing low rates of DCD slows nitrification, reduces over-winter N loss, and causes further improvement in yield and N uptake of winter wheat compared to urea as LUG alone in experiments in Ontario; in other experiments in Alberta there is no yield advantage from using a nitrification inhibitor with LUG for barley. Placement of LUG or nests of urea in soil is an agronomically sound practice for reducing N losses. This practice can eliminate or reduce the amount of nitrification inhibitor necessary to improve the efficiency of fall-applied urea where losses of mineral N are a problem. The optimum size of urea nest or LUG, and optimum combination of LUG and an efficient nitrification inhibitor need to be determined for different crops under different agroclimatic conditions. The soil (texture, CEC, N status), plant (winter or spring crop, crop geometry, crop growth duration and cultivar) and climatic (temperature, amount and distribution of precipitation) factors should be taken into account during field evaluation of LUG. There is a need to conduct region-specific basic research to understand mechanisms and magnitudes of N transformations and N losses in a given ecosystem. Prediction of nitrification from LUG or urea nests in various environments is needed. In nitrification inhibition studies with LUG and chemical nitrification inhibitors, measurements of nitrifier activity will be useful. Finally, there is need for development of applicators for mechanical placement of LUG or urea prills in widely-spaced nests in soil.