“Then, the equipment was much slower, so the risk of not getting nitrogen applied properly was high. Now, labor is really hard to find, but application equipment is fast and highly efficient, if calibrated and used properly. Even in absolute dollars the cost of nitrogen application per acre has not gone up.

“Some people have referred to our current status with nitrogen application as an ‘incremental’ approach to target nitrogen. You have a target crop out there and you start with what you need at various stages of the crop development—much like growers have done with split nitrogen applications in wheat,” he adds

In Virginia, several years ago most growers just applied nitrogen to wheat in the fall. Some growers used two applications — spring and fall. Now, some of the better growers make four nitrogen applications to wheat. A good breeding program headed by Carl Griffey and improved production techniques, like multiple nitrogen applications have pushed wheat yields up in Virginia.

Having nitrogen available during peak crop demand will increase efficiency of the plant for utilizing nitrogen. The later a grower can wait to apply nitrogen, the more likely the rate will be correct and the plant root system is larger and makes more efficient use of applied  nitrogen.

“When the grower knows for sure what kind of stand he has, is there adequate soil moisture and other things, nitrogen use is going to be more efficient, Alley says.

Loss of nitrogen to flooding, in particular, has always been a problem and likely always will be a problem, but there are some things growers can do to combat these type losses, Alley says.

“I have a former graduate student, Peter Scharf, who now works at the University of Missouri, who tracks rainfall in the Corn Belt and he has come up with some tremendous data for rescue nitrogen treatments following different weather-related disasters on corn.

“In some cases, nitrogen is put on much later than usual, and in some cases, even flown on when growers cannot get into a field. The pay back has been tremendous in some of these fields in the Midwest.

“The more we know about the weather and how it affects crops and all the inputs that go into crops, the better we will be able to manage nitrogen in some of these unusual, or infrequent weather scenarios,” Alley says.

With the current cost of phosphate, potash and nitrogen, applying these fertilizers to acid soils is just a killer, Alley adds. For starters, a good liming program, based on sound soil data is a simple thing, but  too many growers don’t follow it strictly enough.

“Soil testing is relatively inexpensive and it doesn’t take a lot of time to do it, but the returns can be huge in terms of how efficiently fertilizers work.