Let's Talk About...Nitrogen Stabilizers - Are They Worth It?

Mar 20, 2019

We’ve all heard about nitrogen stabilizers and their benefits in the last few years, but are they really worth the investment?  This becomes a difficult question to answer due to the wide variety of weather patterns and farming practices across the Dakotas.  First, we need to understand what stabilizers are designed to do.

Nitrogen Loss
Nitrogen loss occurs in two significant processes in our geography: volatilization and leaching.  For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on volatilization as it has been the more significant process in the spring.  When urea is applied in temperatures over 50 degrees, it immediately begins being converted into ammonia by the urease enzyme.  Once urea is converted to ammonia, it is able to move through the soil profile and be taken up by plants.  However, if ammonia is not moved into the soil profile, it becomes vulnerable to volatilization which occurs when ammonia is converted to gas and released into the atmosphere.  When volatilization occurs, there is no way to recover the lost nitrogen. 

Let’s look at how much nitrogen can be lost.

How Much Do We Lose?
A study by NDSU found that up to 30% of surface applied nitrogen could be lost to volatilization over one week without an incorporating rain (Goos, 2011).  So if we apply 115 lbs actual nitrogen (250 lbs urea), we have the potential to lose 34.5 lbs actual or 75 lbs of urea! At  $410 urea that’s a $15.38 per acre loss and there’s nothing we can do about it.  So how much of our investment can a nitrogen stabilizer save?
Lbs Urea Lbs Actual N % Loss $/ton Urea Lbs Urea Lost Lbs Actual Lost $ Lost
250 115 30%  $      410.00 75 34.5   $15.38
Saving Nitrogen
Agrotain is a nitrogen stabilizer which blocks the urease enzyme from functioning and basically buys us a little more time to catch a rain to get our nitrogen into the soil and away from the threat of volatility.  Agrotain is applied to urea through the fertilizer blender at 2 quarts per ton and contains a green dye as an indicator.  The same NDSU study found that Agrotain treated urea would decrease volatilization loss by about 18%.  Let’s run our scenario again.  At 250 lbs of urea, Agrotain treatment costs $8.52 per acre so the urea plus Agrotain costs $59.77.  This time we we’ll still lose some nitrogen over one week but instead of 75 lbs (34.5 lbs actual N) we lose 30 lbs of urea (13.8 lbs actual N). 
Agrotain Treated
Lbs Urea Lbs Actual N % Loss $/ton Urea Lbs Urea Lost Lbs Actual Lost $ Lost
250 115 12%  $      410.00 30 13.8  $    6.15
So for spending $8.52 on the Agrotain, we saved $9.23 on urea that would have been lost.  Well that’s only a $0.71 difference, that’s hardly worth the effort, right?  Wrong.

Yield and Nitrogen
We know that it takes somewhere between 1 and 1.3 lbs of N to produce to a bushel of corn.  Let’s use 1.2 lbs for our scenario.  Using Agrotain we saved 20.7 lbs of actual N.  20.7 lbs divided by 1.2 lbs equals 17.25 bushels saved.  Even at $2.00 corn that investment pays every single time. 
Return on Investment
Treated Loss Untreated Loss Lbs Saved Lbs N/bu Bushels Saved NC Corn ROI
34.5 13.8 20.7 1.2 17.25  $          3.21  $  55.37
Over Application
A counterpoint to stabilizers I often hear is “I’ll just apply more urea to make up the difference.”
Let’s look at that quickly.
Lbs Urea Lbs Actual N % Loss $/ton Urea Lbs Urea Lost Lbs Actual Lost $ Lost
300 138 30%  $      410.00 90 41.4  $  18.45
 As you can see, what actually happens is you spend an additional $10 of fertilizer to lose another 15 lbs of urea.  This is not an efficient use of money or fertilizer.  Not to mention if you get the necessary rainfall to incorporate the fertilizer, you’ve just spent extra money on fertility that you don’t need and won’t be there next year.

Tillage is another option and can decrease volatility, but in reality 20%-40% of your nitrogen can still be lost even if it’s incorporated into the top two inches of soil(Rochette et al., 2009).  Soil conditions also play a factor and tillage can create unneeded dryness at such a critical point in the growing season.  Also, it’s costing you time and money to run tillage equipment across the field.  Think of Agrotain as temporary chemical tillage.

Stabilizers will not fit every situation, but in a dry year and no-till system, they are worth a look.  None of us can predict when we’re going to get that much needed inch of rain to take our urea into the soil where it is needed.  Nitrogen stabilizers are an excellent way to hedge your bet against mother nature and offer flexibility for your fertilizer application timing in the spring.  Stay in contact with your fertilizer professional and keep the conversation open when we head to the field this spring.

Tony Lyren

Goos, R. J. (2011, November). Nitrogen fertilizer additives, which ones work. In North Central Extension-Industry Soil Fertility Conference (Vol. 27).
Rochette, P., Angers, D. A., Chantigny, M. H., MacDonald, J. D., Gasser, M. O., & Bertrand, N. (2009). Reducing ammonia volatilization in a no-till soil by incorporating urea and pig slurry in shallow bands. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems84(1), 71-80.


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