WATCH: Northern Ag Expo addresses nitrogen management in wheat

FARGO, N.D. -- Traffic was nearly normal Dec. 1, at the Northern Ag Expo, but thousands of farmers and crop specialists made it to the show after an eight-inch snowfall on the first day of the show.

Attendance was down only slightly from normal Dec. 1 at the Northern Ag Expo in Fargo, N.D.. Photo taken Dec. 1, 2015, in Fargo, N.D. Photo by Mikkel Pates/Agweek

FARGO, N.D. - Traffic was nearly normal Dec. 1, at the Northern Ag Expo, but thousands of farmers and crop specialists made it to the show after an eight-inch snowfall on the first day of the show.

Exhibitors on Dec. 1 and 2 said they see the effect from crop prices settling at levels lower than recent years. Some lamented that lenders are requiring farmers to focus on defense, and only on cost-cutting. Seminar attendance indicated most still have their head in the game for offense - sharpening techniques to capitalize on yield and quality market incentives.

The room was full to hear Joel Ransom, a North Dakota State University Extension Service small grains specialist, talk about nitrogen management for wheat yields and protein values.

Ransom described a balancing act in making spring wheat planting decisions. With current variety choices, there is an inverse relationship between yield and protein. Higher protein levels are needed to make raised bread products, or to give texture to Asian noodles, for example.

Ransom said the 14 percent protein level is the standard for spring wheat, but many Pacific Rim customers prefer and incentivize the 15 percent protein level. Sometimes, financial incentives for providing high-protein wheat can be substantial.


Balancing act

To maximize economic returns, Ransom said the best farmers can do is look at yield and protein data from universities. He recommended a balanced middle-ground variety category that allows farmers to capitalize on yields, which also offers above-average protein. When using lower-protein varieties, farmers should plan on using more nitrogen to obtain acceptable protein levels.

As an example, he referred to MS Stingray, which has a 120-bushel-per acre trial yield, but only 11.5 percent protein, making it difficult to market for use in bread wheat.

In 2015 trials, NDSU tested 40 varieties. Of those with 14.2 percent protein or higher in western North Dakota locations, only six varieties were above-

average in yield.

“These would be ones that I would put an extra emphasis on,” he said.

In western testing sites, those varieties were HRS 3530, SY-Valda, Rollag, SY-Ingmar, SY-605CL and Elgin-ND.

He showed maps for 2014 and 2015 that indicated some of the lower protein areas of the state, and regions where the areas had unexpectedly high amounts of rainfall. Farmers saw higher yields, but possibly some of the nitrogen they applied was lost because of excessive rainfall and possibly because the amount of nitrogen was insufficient for the higher-than-expected yields.


Ransom also compared statistics showing the levels of premiums for high protein and the discounts for low protein.

“I always assumed premiums were similar to the discounts, but that’s not the case every year,” he said. “It all depends on what other suppliers of wheat have for protein.”

That’s not easily predictable.

Protein pats, paddles

Ransom said, in 2014, elevators were paying $1 per percentage point for protein, over a base level of 14 percent protein.

In 2015, however, premiums dropped between 25 and 35 cents for each protein over 12 percent. The protein premiums and discounts can change so often that some elevators don’t post them regularly.

Ransom said the gross revenue per acre return from investing in strong protein can depend on the base price of wheat. He pointed to tables that show protein response results from various regimens of nitrogen application, and at different times.

While more nitrogen tends to increase wheat yield, Ransom said farmers can’t apply enough nitrogen to allow some low-yielding varieties to catch up with high-yielding varieties.


Similarly, farmers can apply more nitrogen to boost protein levels past the 15 percent point, but the price of nitrogen dictates whether that is a wise economic decision.

Consider a split

He pointed to research that shows “split applications are more efficient than putting everything in the (past) fall,” often allowing farmers to pick up a half-percent of protein, which was especially true in the wet year of 2013.

He said the longer the wait between application and when plants can use it, the more nitrogen is lost to the environment. When making in-season applications of fertilizer, farmers might consider using a urease inhibitor, especially if there is no rain in the near forecast.

Research indicates there can be a yield response in applying urea and ammonium nitrate solution at the four-leaf and boot stages of wheat development. He said there is no yield response if the application is delayed after anthesis, or flowering, but added, these later applications were “quite efficient in increasing protein.”

In the question and answer session following his presentation, one farmer asked Ransom whether it was wise to intermix high-protein wheat varieties with low-protein wheat to come up with a higher average protein for marketing.

Ransom said no research trials have tried that approach and suggested the tactic could cause uneven harvest, among other problems.

He said it is probably more practical to keep different varieties in different fields.


Mikkel Pates is a staff writer for Agweek. To subscribe to the weekly agriculture magazine, call (800) 811-2580 or email .

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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