With the very idea of the topic, questions begin to emerge: what, why, and how to use the technology. We will try to walk through a few of these questions to address what we do and don’t know. With today’s technology, including things like GPS location guidance, flow controllers, or weigh scales on manure spreaders it is possible to make maps of how many gallons per acre are applied.
In terms of solid manure, where decisions are often made based on phosphorus management, grid sampling can be used to determine current soil phosphorus levels. A map is generated of how much phosphorus we want to add to hit a certain level and this prescription map used to determine manure application rates on the go. Some current equipment even has the capability of using these prescription maps on-the-go to change the rate as you move through the field. This is effectively how variable-rate of application other commercial fertilizers has been done for a while, but there are some additional challenges with manures.
However, the question when using manure as the fertilizer source substantially increases these questions. Things like how accurately do we know the manure nutrient content, how variable is the nutrient content during application, how accurately can you hit rate, how uniform is the application, how good is the application method, and we are left with questions about if we can control these variables accurately enough to make variable rate application pay . If we try to extend this to nitrogen, it can get even more complicated as we now need to consider additional factors such as the quality of injection/incorporation throughout the field and its impact on ammonia volatilization and the variation in nitrogen mineralization and variability. This is to say, getting a firm grasp on these details would be the first step towards working towards a variable-rate manure application.
In terms of variable rate nitrogen application with manure, the first step would be determining what we parameter we want to vary nitrogen application rate based on. Some ideas that have been proposed, include previous year’s yield maps, soil type, or soil organic carbon levels. Two weeks from now we will take a closer look at each of these potential methods, why they may be considered, and science available behind how well it works.