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6 Reasons Why Fertigation is the Best Way to Fertilize In-season

Many growers — including row crop farmers — might ask themselves: why fertigation?

But before we answer why, let’s establish the what.

Fertigation is a type of chemigation – an umbrella term for the application of an approved chemical (fertilizer, herbicide, insecticide, fungicide) through an irrigation system.

Fertigation specifically applies fertilizer through that irrigation system. Picture center pivot nozzles spraying a uniform mix of water and liquid fertilizer over a growing cornfield.

While fertigation is already widely used, more and more growers have adopted it in recent years. It’s becoming a “mainstay for fruit growers,” according to an article in Fruit Grower News. But it’s also commonly utilized by row crop farmers growing corn, potatoes, cotton, and soybeans.

Meanwhile, the method is poised for continued growth. Acres of fertigated grain corn increased 18% from 2013 to 2018, according to the USDA. During that same time, fertigated acres of other crops experienced similar increases: wheat (17%), sweet corn (23%), edible beans (10%), vegetables (14%). Other crops experienced growth as well.

So what’s the story behind those numbers? Farmers turn to fertigation because it has several advantages over traditional fertilizer applications.

Improve your timing and efficiency

Farmers who fertigate have a much longer application window and can apply fertilizer throughout the growing season. This empowers them to match nutrient applications with their crops’ rapid nutrient uptake periods. For example, a corn farmer can time a nitrogen application specifically between the V8 and VT phases, where the corn plant needs nearly half of its total N supply. Possibly more importantly, corn farmers can also apply nitrogen via fertigation after flowering when the crop needs almost 40% of it's total N supply.

By applying nutrients only when their crops need it and in the correct amounts, growers can improve their Nitrogen Use Efficiency (the applied nitrogen utilization compared to the total input).

More efficient fertilizer applications help farmers cut down on the amount of fertilizer they use. That equals major cost savings, especially with high fertilizer prices.

This graphic shows the various stages of corn growth and the amount of nitrogen taken up by the plant at each stage.
Fertigation gives growers the power to more precisely coordinate N applications with a plant's rapid nitrogen uptake periods, leading to improved NUE. This graphic from Pioneer shows the percentage of plant N taken up during pre- and post-flowering.

Reduce your labor in the long run

Fertigation does come with an initial cost. Growers must buy and install equipment, get their installation certified, and receive a permit to apply chemicals through the irrigation system.

But that up-front investment leads to long-term savings and less labor during the growing season.

For growers who already have automated irrigation systems on their farms, fertigation is another way to harness that technology to manage nutrient applications — with minimal energy. Through fertigation, growers can easily start a manual nutrient application, then leave the system to finish the job.

By setting multiple irrigation systems to apply fertilizer, a farmer can cover hundreds of acres while they work on other tasks. Alternatively, non-fertigating growers would have to pilot a high-clearance applicator for 2-4 hours to cover a single 160-acre field.

Make uptake easier for crops

Liquid fertilizer applied via fertigation quickly seeps into the soil, enabling plants to absorb it more efficiently. The same can’t be said for slow-release granular fertilizers that sit on top of soil for some time or liquid fertilizer applied without a rainfall or irrigation event immediately after.

Fertigation is field friendly…

By using an irrigation system, growers don’t have to apply fertilizer by driving machinery through the field. This switch can prevent unwanted soil compaction and field damage. Soil compaction is a serious problem for growers, since dense soil can restrict beneficial root growth and reduce a field’s water-holding capacity.

… and wallet friendly.

Not only does fertigation help growers optimize their fertilizer spend but it also saves on fuel costs. Growers no longer have to fill their tractor’s tank to make split fertilizer applications. They simply use the same energy they otherwise would for irrigation.

Fertigate — and help the environment.

Fertigation is a more precise way to apply fertilizer to crops. Used appropriately, it helps prevent nutrients from running off or leaching and contaminating freshwater resources. And as Ag industry leaders place a greater emphasis on environmentally friendly crop production, they’ll reward growers who can document and demonstrate environmental stewardship.

Growers who understand — and want to leverage — the overwhelming advantages of fertigation can further benefit from Sentinel Fertigation’s N-Time™ Fertigation Management System. N-Time™ is a software platform that provides fertigation management tools and delivers real-time, imagery-based nutrient application recommendations directly to users throughout the growing season.

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