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How to Leverage the UNL Nitrogen Algorithm and Other Digital Tools Alongside N-Time

Nitrogen management is one of the most important operational components of a modern farm. And that significance is only increasing, as margins get slimmer, incentives for reduced applications enter the market, and more government regulations are levied. 

In Nebraska in particular, nitrogen overuse has contributed to groundwater contamination issues. Almost 20% of Public Water Supplies and private wells in the state consistently test high for nitrate-nitrogen

Nitrogen runoff can harm a community’s water supply — but it can also hurt a farmer’s profitability. Nitrogen is expensive. So when fertilizer isn’t directly used by crops and instead leeches off into groundwater, then it’s not just a chemical being washed away — it’s money.  

In the midst of this environment, better nitrogen benchmarking and management techniques are crucial.

But when it comes to actually setting nitrogen use targets and more efficiently managing nitrogen applications, things aren’t so cut and dry. Accessibility and usability of nitrogen management data has been a struggle for growers. Traditionally, it’s been difficult to find tools to help manage this problem.

Recently, two new tools have become available for nitrogen management: 

  • The UNL algorithm: This is a web app version of what was previously an Excel spreadsheet that UNL offered farmers (known before as the corn N calculator). The algorithm tool takes into account soil characteristics, irrigation practices, and other factors to provide a recommendation for the total nitrogen necessary for that growing season.

  • Producer Connect: This is another web/mobile app offered by Nebraska’s natural resource districts, set to launch in June this year. It will also provide a preseason recommendation for total amount of nitrogen, alongside a reporting dashboard.

As growers increasingly recognize the importance of optimizing their nitrogen applications, digital tools like these can be extremely useful. It’s exactly why Sentinel developed N-Time — a digital tool that uses multispectral images to deliver fertigation application recommendations. 

But these tools can actually be used together to maximize efficiency and simplify growers’ management decisions — all the way through the growing season.

How are these publicly available tools different from N-Time?

The UNL algorithm tool and Producer Connect are both great options for preseason management decisions. However, these tools only offer static, up-front recommendations for the total nitrogen necessary for a growing season. They don’t adjust recommendations based on actual or anticipated weather conditions, hybrid needs, or other important factors.

N-Time makes its mark by offering in-season recommendations in real time based on current conditions. 

This real-time flexibility is crucial, especially when extreme weather events, input prices, and other factors can fluctuate wildly. 

One potential gap with the UNL algorithm and Producer Connect tools is that they base nitrogen recommendations on a yield goal, inputted by the farmer. It’s great to have ambitious yield goals. But those goals can often be disjointed from what’s actually happening on the ground.

N-Time takes all this into account. Its insights rely on imagery and real-time data, rather than a yield goal guess. Recommendations adjust alongside external factors, like weather, soil moisture or whatever else is going on in the fields.

To evaluate all these nitrogen management tools, there are also differences in geographic specificity. 

While the UNL algorithm and Producer Connect offer one up-front recommendation for the entire operation, N-Time utilizes multispectral imagery to give site-specific advice. For example, maybe one field needs another nitrogen application midway through the season, while another field doesn’t. This isn’t a distinction that the UNL algorithm and Producer Connect make. But those field-by-field recommendations are N-Time’s bread and butter. 

Finally, the best choice for a nitrogen management tool can also depend on what you grow. The UNL algorithm and Producer Connect platforms are both specific to corn. Meanwhile, N-Time had nine crops under management this past growing season: rye, wheat, oats, corn, popcorn, cotton, soybeans, orchard grass, and potatoes. 

How to use the UNL algorithm and other tools with N-Time

All these nitrogen management tools do not have to be mutually exclusive. While there are important differences in the platforms, those variations can actually be complementary. 

For example, farmers can use either the UNL algorithm tool or Producer Connect at the front end of their growing season to get preseason recommendations for how much total nitrogen to purchase. While this prediction might not always be exactly on the nose, it can still give you a rough idea of how much to expect to spend on nitrogen, roughly how you plan to split it up (e.g. 30% base and 70% fertigation), and when to have nitrogen on hand.

Then, that’s where N-Time comes in. 

Once you determine your general plan, get your field setup in N-Time to fine-tune your program to actual crop yield potential. The software uses multispectral imagery to help you figure out how to divvy that nitrogen up through the growing season after your base application. With that data in hand, N-Time can provide real-time, in-season recommendations for how to adapt to the changing conditions. 

In other words: These new publicly available tools can help inform how you purchase and plan nitrogen. Then, N-Time can help inform how to direct that nitrogen. 

Prediction and planning are important for nitrogen management. But adaptation is too. With all these tools working with you on your farm, those management decisions can get a lot easier. 

If you’re interested in integrating N-Time on your operation to maximize your nitrogen use efficiency — all season long — reach out to our team today.

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