Wet Soils Underscore Risk of Sidedressing

Some hustle to finish sidedressing before corn gets too tall. Tom J. Bechman

Published on: Jun 23, 2006

There was a reason why only a few hands went up when Dave Nanda, Stewart's Seeds, Grensburg, asked how many farmers typically sidedressed while he conducted training meetings during the winter and early spring. And there's a reason why he left the meeting feeling that very few who didn't already sidedress would go with the practice this year, despite very high N prices.

On the surface sidedressing seemed like the natural choice for '06. Nitrogen prices were extremely high, hitting around $550 per ton for anhydrous ammonia last fall. Sidedressing is recognized as the most efficient way to apply N for corn. It goes on closest to when the crop needs the corn, greatly reducing chances that N will be lost from the soil before the crop can use it.

As a bonus, those who didn't price ahead and who waited to purchase anhydrous near sidedressing time got a 'bargain,' with anhydrous prices dropping by $100 per ton from last fall's highs in some cases. However, that's an unusual yearly period, and insiders say it resulted primarily because the mild winter in the northeast lowered consumption of home heating oil. Home heating oil and production of anhydrous ammonia compete for the same raw ingredients during production. There was no way, of course, to know the Northeastern winter would be mild, freeing up more raw ingredients that needed to be moved into anhydrous production.

So with all these advantages, why do only a limited number of people sidedress, or at least sidedress most of their acres. "This is exactly why I don't do it," one Indiana farmer told us last week. "Soils are wet now and the corn is knee-high and growing quickly. With warm temperatures coming up, it's going to shoot up quickly. If we get another rain or two, some are going to have to worry about finding a window to get it on. It's just too big a worry for me- I certainly don't want to get caught without additional N applied for the crop. That would be devastating to yields."

Many planned to begin sidedressing early to get ahead of the curve, and specialists say sidedressing can begin as soon as the crop is big enough that flowing soil from the injection operation won't cover it. But an extended wet period in early to mid-May in many parts of Indiana wiped out that plan as well.

"That's why I'm happy applying our N pre-plant," the farmer told us. "We usually wait fairly late in the spring to apply. Sometimes others are planting and it's easy to get itchy because they're planting and we're still putting on anhydrous. But I just don't think it's worth the risk of not being able to get it on at all if weather turns sour and you went the sidedress route."