Dale Wyatt hasn’t become a wholesale convert to ESN fertilizer on his southern Alberta farm, but so far it has allowed him to continue a one-pass direct seeding operation with cereals with his existing single shoot drill, and the controlled release fertilizer has definitely bumped up the protein level in spring wheat.
Wyatt, who along with his wife Jennie and son Wade crops about 3,000 acres of grains, canola and pulse crops near Mossleigh, southeast of Calgary, says before he began using ESN fertilizer about four years ago, he was making two passes to get enough fertilizer applied without seedling injury. Another more costly option was to change the air seeder to a model with some type of fertilizer banding system. ESN is a polymer-coated urea that releases nitrogen to the crop over the growing season.
“With my single shoot drill with two-inch openers I just couldn’t put down enough fertilizer at time of seeding without damaging the crop,” says Wyatt. From a gradual start, the past couple years he has been using a blend of 50 per cent ESN and 50 per cent urea, along with 10 pounds of sulphur and 25 pounds of phosphorus that’s all applied with wheat and oat seed at the time of planting. The blend is put together by his local fertilizer supplier.
For his cereals he’s targeting about 80 pounds of actual N, made up of half urea and half ESN. With wheat, for example, that’s about 320 pounds of product per acre he’s putting into the narrow seed row — 220 pounds of all fertilizer and 100 pounds of seed.
“It’s allowed me to keep using the equipment I had, and seed the cereals with a one-pass operation,” says Wyatt. Another real benefit has been a consistent bump in wheat protein levels. With his own on-farm trials, comparing wheat grown with the ESN/urea blend to wheat fertilized with spring-applied anhydrous ammonia and urea he saw a 1.5 per cent protein increase in the ESN/urea treated crop.
Last year (fall of 2014) his wheat ranged from 14.2 to 14.7 per cent protein, compared to reports from other area farms where protein was about 12.5 per cent.
“I haven’t necessarily measured a yield increase but the protein has definitely been higher,” says Wyatt. “It may not happen every year, but so far it has been higher.” He says the market pays a premium for each tenth of a per cent increase in protein. “With that higher protein if you can get $1 more per bushel on a 40 bushel crop that’s certainly worth going for,” he says.
Dale and his son each own their own land, but pool their equipment and labour primarily at seeding and harvest. Dale produces canola, barley, wheat and oats, while Wade also grows peas and Durum. Wade has also seen a protein increase in durum using the ESN/urea blend.
With a mixed farming operation that also includes a 200 head commercial cow-calf operation, the senior Wyatt also uses the ESN/urea fertilizer blend on oats, which are produced mainly for greenfeed. He hasn’t checked for a protein increase in the oats, but he has observed improved regrowth on oats after the crop is baled.
“We’re seeing quite a bit more regrowth on the oats after the greenfeed has been harvested and that makes good fall pasture for the cows,” says Wyatt. “There was always some regrowth, but since I started using ESN in the blend it is considerably more. The oats are obviously getting another shot of nitrogen from the ESN later in the season.”
While the 50/50 ESN/urea blend has had not adverse affect on wheat and oats, Wyatt is still a bit leery about using that fertility rate in a narrow seed row with canola. Being a much smaller seed, he’s concerned there might be seedling injury, and didn’t want to risk an expensive lesson. “I’d really like someone else to try it first,” he says. At the same time, he’s also thinking of doing a trial with a few acres this year just to see what happens.
Good solid product
It may not be the best marketing line, but Ray Dowbenko, senior agronomist with Agrium — the developers and manufacturers of ESN — says the “good news” story with ESN is that there is nothing new.
“We did our first research with ESN in 1997 and then launched the product in Canada in 2006,” says Dowbenko. “And the reality is that it hasn’t changed. Since 1997 we have looked at it over a wide range of crops, in all types of farming conditions in Canada and the U.S. and in various countries around the world and it performs the same. It is just a very good, solid, consistent product.”
ESN is patented polymer-coated urea. It is nitrogen fertilizer with controlled release into the soil depending on moisture and temperature. ESN provides controlled release of nitrogen and is different from other slow-release products known as inhibitors and stabilizers, which also manage the availability of nutrients to the crop. With the polymer-coated urea, ESN releases nitrogen to the crop over a period of time. With stabilizers and inhibitors the fertilizer is there in the soil, but the products alter the soil environment — the activity of soil microbes — which are involved in the process of making nutrients available to the crop. All these products were developed with generally the same idea, but use different processes.
ESN is designed to gradually release nitrogen from the polymer coated urea granule over much of the growing season. When used in a blend with regular urea or other form of nitrogen, the untreated nitrogen can provide nutrient to the plants sooner, with ESN releasing nitrogen over the coming days and weeks.
How it works
As the polymer coated urea granules go into the ground, moisture is absorbed in through the polymer coating, that moisture dissolves the nitrogen inside the granule, and then is gradually released through the polymer coating into the soil.
The product is designed so about 15 per cent of nitrogen is released within the first 10 days, within about 30 days as much as 40 to 60 per cent of nitrogen has been released, and within 60 days between 85 to 90 per cent of the nitrogen has been released. So for all the nitrogen to be released it’s going to take between 60 and 90 days.
The benefit of the controlled release is to protect the nitrogen so it isn’t lost through leaching or into the atmosphere (a process known as volatilization) and to release it during the growing season when the plant most needs it.
By protecting the nitrogen so it isn’t lost and then making it available to the plant when most needed, Dowbenko says, research has shown several benefits. First of all you get the full value from the nitrogen. Controlling nitrogen release keeps the nutrient available for the crop, and not weeds. More or all nitrogen can be placed in the seed row without risk of seedling damage — making direct seeding with single shoot seeding systems like Dale Wyatt’s still practical and relevant.
With some crops like corn and potatoes, where growers commonly used split fertilizer applications to provide enough nutrients to the crop during the growing season, ESN makes it possible to apply all fertilizer at time of planting.
With all nitrogen available to the crop and when needed by the crop, research again shows very consistent increase in protein and crop yield.
Dowbenko says field research has shown protein improvements ranging from zero up to 1.5 per cent increase, with a good average range of 0.5 to one per cent. On the yield side, research has shown a very consistent five to eight per cent yield increase in wheat and eight to 10 per cent in canola. And, yes, he says research and farmer experience has shown higher rates of fertilizer with ESN products can be used with canola and cereals with equal confidence.
Granted it is a more expensive form of fertilizer averaging in cereals and canola $4 to $6 per acre more than conventional urea, but Dowbenko says the added protein and yield returns more than make up for the added cost.