NORTH DAKOTA (KXNET) — North Dakota has a great record of farm history and as the traditions of farming continue to grow and evolve, taking a deeper look into the soil can assist in the preservation and life of local crops.

So far we’ve learned about phosphorus and potassium as it relates to our state’s soil and crops.

This week’s highlighted element is nitrogen.

Nitrogen is in the soil under our feet, in the water we drink, and in the air we breathe. Nitrogen is also a chemical element with the symbol N and atomic number 7.

But as always, the million dollar question: how does it affect and contribute to our soil and crops?

Well, NDSU soil scientist Chris Augustin is back in the lab with the answers.

“Nitrogen is an essential nutrient. It’s the one that we’re most concerned about mainly because that’s the one we invest the most amount of money in or inputs into it. One of the things about nitrogen is it is very common in our environment, 78% of the air that we breathe is nitrogen however plants can’t pick up that nitrogen in so that’s why we stay with nur and fertilizer, and also our legume crops which have the ability to fix the atmospheric nitrogen are important to our cropping systems,” said Augustin.

When nitrogen is in the soil, it is known as nitrate.

Augustin says crops such as soybeans, field beans, chickpeas, and alfalfa, don’t need nitrogen at all.

But, our small grains such as wheat, barley, and corn do.

He also says that nitrogen is actually difficult to manage.

“78% of the atmosphere, it’s a very leaking nutrient and so if you’re doing a good job with your fertility practice and your nutrient management, maybe 40% of what you apply to the ground actually gets into the crop and that’s because it just wants to get back into the atmosphere as that dinitrogen gas that’s 78% of the air that we breathe,” Augustin explained.

Being that nitrate is difficult to manage, how can we preserve it and deal with it best? 

As in the past, Augustin tells us soil testing is very important but for nitrogen, it is not the only solution.

“What we can do is improve soil, organic matter content, and by doing that there’s a lot of nitrogen in these organic compounds. It’s got the basis of amino acids and proteins and over time if we do things like no-till, using high carbon crops, and diverse rotations that have high and low carbon-nitrogen ratios. We can slowly build up organic matter, integrating livestock into a crop production system, which is another way to help increase organic matter,” Augustin said. 

Augustin shares that here, North Dakotans have the ability to use the NDSU crop nitrogen calculator for assistance.

“Several variables in the soil, such as your soil test, which we’ve been doing that for a number of years, and I think most producers have a good understanding of that but with our crop nitrogen calculator with how costly it is, it takes into account the cost of that fertilizer, as well as what the cost of the commodity is or what you’re hoping to make when you sell that grain from your field It also takes into account your tillage practices,” said Augustin.  

Increasing organic matter can help slowly build those nitrogen pulls, so over time as it builds up, we can eventually use and benefit from it.

Without nitrogen there is no chlorophyll, without chlorophyll there is no photosynthesis, and we need photosynthesis to make food.

In other words, without nitrogen, we aren’t able to feed the world, and there would also be a lack of cash flow.

Next week KX will break down her last series element, carbon.