Accurately Assessing Nutrient Loss In a Drought Year Can Be Tricky

University of Illinois' Fabian Fernandez explains how to properly test and recommend nutrient rates for the 2013 growing season.

Published on: Sep 11, 2012

University of Illinois assistant professor Fabián Fernández says many farmers are asking questions about adding nutrients to the soil in preparation for next year's crop.

The fact that grain yields and nutrient removal levels are lower than normal due to the drought and some fields have been baled or harvested for silage complicates the interpretation of soil test results for phosphorus, potassium, and pH.

In Illinois, P and K removal rates, which are calculated by multiplying seed yield by seed nutrient concentration, are used to estimate appropriate fertilization rates. Historically, farmers based their calculations on the average yield for the field. Now many producers use yield monitors to estimate removal rates for different parts of a field and then use variable-rate applications.

Accurately Assessing Nutrient Loss In a Drought Year Can Be Tricky
Accurately Assessing Nutrient Loss In a Drought Year Can Be Tricky

Some farmers collect seed samples for analysis to calculate nutrient concentrations and removal rates for different parts of the field. Others use the standard removal rates published in the Illinois Agronomy Handbook (http://extension.cropsci.illinois.edu/handbook/pdfs/chapter08.pdf). Fernández notes the removal rates in the Handbook are at the upper end of the range of removal rates of current hybrids and varieties.

Whether a seed sample is taken to represent the inherent or drought-induced variability of the field or a removal rate value from the table is used, obtaining a good yield estimate is very important.

"While drought, soil fertility status, and yield level could affect the nutrient concentration of grain, our research has shown that yield is the most important factor impacting P and K removal rates," Fernández explains. "Even though seed P and K concentrations varied widely, we have observed a positive linear relationship between yield level and P and K removal for both corn and soybean."

Soil testing for P, K, and pH is used to determine the need for fertilization or limestone applications. Farmers are asking if the drought will affect how they should interpret this fall's soil test results.

"This is a two-fold issue," Fernández explained. "One is procedural: obtaining an appropriate sampling depth. The other relates to natural processes: leaching of nutrients out of plant materials and equilibration of nutrients in the soil."

At the procedural level, it is difficult to control the sampling depth when the soil is dry. Moreover, if the soil surface is dry and crumbly, the top portion of the core may be lost during sampling. Conservation tillage systems such as no-till, and even chisel-plow, do not mix the soil, so nutrients tend to become stratified with higher concentrations in the soil surface. Tests using a sample less than 7 inches deep will overestimate fertility while those using a sample deeper than 7 inches or one that lost a portion of the top will underestimate fertility.

One of the main issues related to natural processes is that P and K cycling from the crop to the soil is an important mechanism of soil nutrient replenishment.

Corn and soybean return approximately one-fourth to one-third of the total P taken up, and about two-thirds of the total K taken up, to the soil. K cycling has the greatest impact on fall soil sampling because this nutrient remains in an inorganic form in plant tissues and readily leaches out of the plant with precipitation once the crop reaches maturity.

"We should not be as concerned about P because P is in organic form in plant tissues and those materials need to be decomposed before P is released back to the soil," Fernández advises.

Fernández warns this year it is not safe to assume that lower removal rates and lower yields will result in greater P and K levels in the soil because drought limits the equilibration of nutrients in the soil. During the season, plants have extracted P and K from the more easily available nutrient pools. Because of the lack of moisture, the soil has, to a large extent, not been able to replenish those pools from less available nutrient pools.

"While some of the moisture we are beginning to receive now will help the replenishment process from the nutrient reserves in the soil, those processes take time," he adds.

Fernández recommends waiting until as late as possible in the fall to collect samples. The later the sample is taken, the more reliable the K test values will be.

"My prediction is that soil K test levels will end up being lower than actual levels, and P test levels will be about normal to slightly lower than actual levels," Fernández says.

Finally, Fernández has been asked about the effect of drought on soil pH. Studies looking at pH variability over years and seasons encompassing a variety of wet and dry conditions have shown no consistent trend. Thus, there is no reason to assume that dry conditions will always affect soil pH.

However, dry conditions may cause lower pH in soils that are neutral to slightly acidic. Differences of as much as 0.3 pH units are possible because lack of rain can induce salt accumulation in the soil solution, increasing its hydrogen ion concentration and resulting in lower (more acidic) pH.

"However, buffer pH values used to determine the amount of lime applications are usually unaffected by these small amounts of salt," Fernández says. "Thus, even if there is an over-prediction of acidity that calls for a lime application, the amount of lime to be applied should not be affected by the dry conditions."