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Fertigation in agriculture: It’s not just nitrogen, and it’s not just for corn

A center pivot irrigates a field of soybeans.
Fertigation can benefit many crops, including the soybeans in this photo.

At Sentinel, we focus a lot on nitrogen fertigation in cornfields. And for good reason: our N-Time™ technology helps corn farmers in particular make precise nitrogen applications and save 40+ lb-N/ac.

But it’s not just corn that gets to join the fertigation party. As fertigation in agriculture (applying water soluble fertilizer via an irrigation system) becomes more ubiquitous, many other crops can benefit from the precision nutrient management that fertigation offers.

What crops can use fertigation?

While corn is still the most commonly fertigated crop, farmers use fertigation technology to more effectively grow plenty of others, including:

  • Small grains: Precise nitrogen applications are critical for healthy grain crops. Too much nitrogen on grains like winter wheat, oats, rye, etc. can hurt yields or cause lodging. With fertigation, farmers can ensure the right balance for a healthier crop — and possibly even boost yields.

  • Potatoes: Nitrogen recommendations for potatoes can vary based on the type of hybrid you’re growing or amount of soil organic matter. When farmers use fertigation, they can customize nitrogen applications based on the crops’ specific needs. Fertigation of potatoes via center pivots is common in places like Florida, and one 4-year project even showed that fertigation helped farmers use 25% less fertilizer on their potatoes.

  • Sugar beets: Optimal nitrogen in sugar beets ensures early growth and improves overall root quality — which helps increase sucrose content and helps with the sugar refining process later. Sugar beet fertilization is a delicate, extremely important process, and fertigation can maximize its efficiency. (We’ll talk more about sugar beets below.)

  • Cotton: Fertigation helps optimize nutrient management, but it can also help conserve water resources in dryer regions. In India, farmers discovered both benefits, when a 2-year field investigation showed that subsurface drip fertigation improved both nitrogen use efficiency in the crop and saved precious irrigation water.

  • Soybeans: It’s common for farmers in Illinois, for example, to use fertigation to apply phosphorous to corn-soybean rotated fields. According to a University of Illinois study, this helps not only improve yields, but also helps ward off soil fertility problems by more adequately managing nutrients through fertigation.

  • Forage: Even forage like hay grass or alfalfa can benefit from fertigation. Farmers who use fertigation can avoid the fuel and equipment costs of other application methods — plus they save time by not making manual applications to hundreds of acres.

Fertigation in agriculture via drip irrigation (you can read about the different types of irrigation equipment used for fertigation here) is also used for specialty crops like blueberries, apples, tomatoes, and vine crops.

As fertigation becomes more common in a variety of crops, so do the resources available to farmers. For example, the Southeast U.S. Vegetable Crop Handbook (produced by extension specialists and researchers) already includes chemigation equipment calibration recommendations for crops like peppers, eggplant, squash, melons, and more.

Which nutrients can be fertigated?

Nitrogen is the most commonly fertigated nutrient, and what most people think of when they hear about fertigation. It’s the most water soluble, and it plays a huge role in all crops’ growth and health.

But just like humans, crops need well-balanced nutrition to thrive. And fertigation can make sure they get the right amounts of each, at the right times.

Adequate phosphorus helps with early root growth and water efficiency, for example. Potassium increases drought resistance, builds biomass strength, and is important for photosynthesis. Sulfur is crucial for amino acid formation and enzyme activation. And many micronutrients (like iron, manganese, zinc, boron, and more) have important benefits — when applied in correct amounts.

Luckily, fertigation in agriculture can empower precise applications for all of the above.

How fertigation helps crops with their unique nutrient needs

Not every crop is created equal. In fact, when it comes to nutrient needs, no two are exactly alike. Fertigation is the tool that ensures each crop gets exactly what it needs for the best growth and yield potential. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Phosphorus is extremely important in small grains, because it can strengthen root systems and shoots that help them withstand winter.

  • With their shallow root system, potatoes have relatively high nutrient needs. Since they’re often grown in sandier, low-fertility soils, a strong nutrient management system for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and more can ensure a healthy crop.

  • For fruits and vegetables, proper crop nutrition is crucial to growing great-tasting produce with excellent nutritional value. Fertigation is particularly important for these products, because the method ensures nutrient applications occur when and where plants need them most so they never go hungry (especially for phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium).

But a crop’s unique nutrient needs don’t just depend on what they are (corn, potatoes, etc). It can also depend on where they are.

Areas of Indiana and Michigan have had issues with manganese availability, for example. North Dakota farmers often struggle with sulfur deficiency, which can hurt canola, corn, and small grains. And Minnesota apple orchards have problems with potassium deficiency.

Wherever you are and whatever you grow, your crops will have extremely specific nutrient needs. Your yields may depend on finding a way to meet those needs. Fertigation is the technique that can match unique nutrient requirements with the actual applications being made.

How fertigation can improve produce quality

But fertigation isn’t just about life or death: keeping plants alive and then harvesting them. Precise nutrient management can also improve the quality of those yields.

Remember sugar beets? Optimal nitrogen is critical for sugar content — which growers are judged on. Too much nitrogen (especially late in the season) can lead to less sucrose content, because the plant is diverting its energy to producing and retaining new leaves. With fertigation, farmers can pull back on nitrogen applications when necessary (especially with a tool like N-Time™, which not only tells you to apply nitrogen, but also when to stop applying nitrogen).

In cotton crops, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus applications can all impact lint yield. And in vegetable crops, proper nitrogen has an effect on plants’ biomass, protein content, and nutritional quality.

Thanks to fertigation, farmers can ensure their crops get the right amounts of the right nutrients, at the right times.

What’s next for fertigation in other crops?

Although fertigation has been around for many years, it continues to evolve and expand. This is a technological space still being explored — and the potential is significant.

At Sentinel, we’re trialing fertigation with cotton, potatoes, rye, oats, soybeans, popcorn, and forage. (For updates on our research, make sure to sign up for our newsletter.) Many farmers in our network are interested in fertigating grains, potatoes, and more. Field vegetables will continue to grow as a potential market for fertigation, especially for crops like cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers.

But the bottom line is clear: fertigation has the power to improve yields, increase produce quality, conserve resources (fertilizer and water), and help farmers’ bottom lines — all across the world, and with dozens of crops.

More and more growers are recognizing the power of precision nutrient management. With fertigation at their disposal, they can adjust and correct their nutrient management programs based on actual crop needs. This reduces the risk of over or under-applying.

And with a tool like N-Time™, making the decision for more or less nitrogen in particular is easier than ever. This technology — data-driven and with in-field calibration — has already translated well to other crops besides corn.

If you’re interested in what N-Time™ can do for your fields, contact our team today.

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