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Field Notes: Hailstorms. Hot, dry weather. High prices.

After being tested in research fields during the 2019-2021 growing seasons, Sentinel’s trademarked N-Time™ Fertigation Management System was made commercially available for the first time this year. Our flagship software is currently being utilized on dozens of farming operations across Nebraska and Kansas. In this three-part series, Field Notes, we’ll examine how N-Time™ is currently helping producers management confidently and profit sustainably.

In our third blog of the series, Sentinel implementation specialist James Herrick provides a look at how producers have used N-Time™ during a unique growing season.

Hailstorms. Hot, dry weather. High fertilizer prices.

Every growing season comes with its set of challenges. This year was no different. Corn growers in Nebraska, Kansas and other Great Plains states dealt with difficulties as they managed their crops. About two dozen of them did so while utilizing Sentinel’s N-Time™ FMS software to anticipate nitrogen needs in their fields and schedule fertilizer applications accordingly.

Two men, both wearing caps, stand in a corn field while looking at a tablet.
James Herrick (right) and Brett Gerdes (left) implemented Sentinel's software on farms this growing season. They helped producers use N-Time after extreme weather events, in times of drought and for unintended but beneficial purposes.

Along with product support intern Brett Gerdes, Sentinel’s implementation specialist James Herrick helped producers incorporate N-Time™ into their operations over the last few months, gathering observations about the growing season and nitrogen application along the way.

Typically, planting occurs from late-April to mid-June, but the busiest time for fertigation is when the corn plant is progressing from late vegetative growth stages to its R3 and R4 reproductive stages, which are called the “milk” and “dough” stages to reflect the consistency of the inner kernel at each interval.

The primary fertigation window isn’t the same for every grower. And growers will apply nitrogen more or less frequently depending on their personal fertigation standards, the type of hybrid(s) they’re growing and a variety of other factors, including weather.

Some growers will apply four of more shots of nitrogen during the growing season. Others will apply the bulk of their nitrogen early on and will only apply an additional one or two shots after that.

A few growers who followed the latter strategy used Sentinel’s N-Time™ imagery insights to determine that they applied enough nitrogen early and didn’t need to apply more nitrogen later in the season. One farmer in Northeast Kansas who had roughly 300 acres enrolled with Sentinel applied about 40 pounds less nitrogen per acre than they typically would have as a result.

Deciding when and how much nitrogen to apply is already a complicated decision. And it was made even more complex this growing season by the extreme weather experienced by some farmers. For growers in Nebraska from Grand Island east through Seward, hailstorms wreaked havoc. A handful of Sentinel growers were forced to replant after their initial corn crop was decimated.

“The corn may have come up, used some nitrogen and then died,” Herrick said. “That obviously affects things, and you may have to apply more nitrogen than you would because the first plant used up some of it.”

In other places in Nebraska and Kansas, fields received little precipitation. That forced growers to irrigate more, which can lead to nitrogen being “washed out.”

“If you’re irrigating a lot more, especially if you have maybe coarser textured soils, that nitrogen fertilizer isn’t going to stick around the root zone or in your soil for very long because that water will continuously wash it out,” Herrick said. “Nitrogen is very mobile in the soil.”

With that being the case, Herrick said it was helpful that Sentinel’s N-Time™ software provided fertigation scheduling recommendations 5-7 days in advance. Some growers checked N-Time several times daily to see the real-time satellite imagery being provided of their fields. Others checked in several times a week for insights. According to Herrick, most farmers accessed N-Time from their tablets, which rarely leave their side during the growing season.

High fertilizer prices complicated nitrogen management further. In the spring, Urea Ammonium Nitrate (UAN)28 reached an all-time high of $1.12/lb.N and UAN32 climbed to $1.14/lb.N, according to DTN. Even as prices dropped during the summer, UAN28 was 64% more expensive and UAN32 was 66% more expensive in July 2022 than the year prior.

“A lot of growers have been more cautious with how they’ve been applying nitrogen fertilizer because they want to get the maximum benefit out of it,” Herrick explained. “Nitrogen is about $1 a pound. So, if you can save growers 30 or 40 pounds an acre, you’re saving them 30 or 40 dollars an acre. Farmers are wanting to be very smart about the way they’re applying nitrogen. They don’t want to over-apply, but they don’t want to under apply as well, and nitrogen starve their crop.”

Several growers found unintended, but applicable uses for the imagery provided through N-Time™ during the growing season.

“For the most part this is a nitrogen management tool, but growers have been using this to diagnose other issues within their field,” Herrick said. “Since we’re getting high resolution imagery, you can see other issues that pop up within the field.”

“For example, if the end gun on a pivot isn’t working the way you expected it to, you can see that show up in the imagery. I’ve had a couple of instances where on the pivot there have been a couple of plugged nozzles and we’ve been able to see that show up on the imagery. It’s small things like that that can contribute to overall yield that can save a grower in the long run.”

Farmers also enjoyed several new features added to N-Time™ by Sentinel’s software development team this growing season. An application log section was added that allows growers to enter each nitrogen application event. That information can be used to help analyze and judge future fertigation decisions.

“Since we’re getting high resolution imagery, you can see other issues that pop up within the field.” - James Herrick, Sentinel Fertigation

Sentinel’s software team is working on additional improvements to continuously bolster the N-Time™ experience for the next growing season — ready for whatever familiar and new challenges may await.

With the bulk of the growing season now over, most producers are anxiously awaiting harvest with optimism for high yields.

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