Nitrogen will leach when soil water content becomes greater than the maximum soil water holding capacity, as excess water will drain below the root zone carrying within it soluble nitrogen, mostly as nitrate. If the profile is dry, normal fine-textured Nebraska soils can hold up to 2 inch available water and a gentle 4-inch rain can completely infiltrate without any leaching.  However, if the soil profile is at field capacity, there might be as much drainage as rain.

Moreover, the soil solution nitrate level also needs to be known since the quantity of nitrogen lost depends on the concentration. Nitrate in the soil solution depends on

  • nitrogen leftover from last season,
  • fertilizer nitrogen applied, and
  • accumulation from mineralization of soil organic matter.

In the spring or early summer (i.e., from March to June), mineralization of soil organic matter increases as temperature rises. In addition, application of nitrogen fertilizer near planting is a common practice, which greatly increases nitrogen concentration in soil. If excessive rainfall occurs during this period and drainage occurs beyond the crop root zone, nitrogen leaching will likely occur. The risk is even higher for coarse-textured soils. Identification of potential areas with a high risk of nitrogen leaching and quantification of possible nitrogen leaching losses can help aid in timely remediation through management.

Spring and early summer of 2015 were "wet" in east, south central and west central Nebraska. All of these areas received more than the normal amount of rainfall from March through June (Table 1, Figure 1). For example, the Lincoln area received 5.3 inches more rainfall from March through June than its long-term average. York and Clay Center also received above average precipitation for the period. As mentioned above, concentration of dissolved nitrate in soil can be high in the spring and early summer due to accumulation of nitrate released from soil organic matter and application of nitrogen fertilizer. Consequently, excessive rainfall can potentially lead to nitrogen leaching because of drainage beyond root depth for nitrogen uptake.

Using the Maize-N program (http://hybridmaize.unl.edu/maizen.shtml) developed by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, we estimated possible nitrogen leaching losses in east and south central Nebraska. Simulation results indicate a significant amount of nitrogen could be lost through leaching in east and south central Nebraska (Table 1). This is based on assumed conditions of a silt clay loam soil with organic matter content of 3% and an application of 50 lb N/acre at the start of May.

Using the Lincoln area for an example, as much as 78 lb nitrogen could be leached below the depth of 30 inches. Although nitrate at deeper soil depth can still be available to crop uptake, its recovery efficiency may be lower. Such a situation could increase the risk of N deficiency for crops like corn, if in-season nitrogen application rates are not adjusted accordingly. For a coarse-textured soil, the risk of nitrate leaching in those areas can be even higher.

Further west, for example in North Platte, the risk of nitrate leaching remains low, because the amount of rainfall did not likely lead to water draining below the root zone.

This information is critical earlier in the season. In the future we will use this model to predict where large amounts of drainage might occur so that producers in those high nitrogen-leaching risk areas can evaluate the crop for signs of deficiency and adjust fertilizer management accordingly.

Table 1. Rainfall from March through June for 2015 and long-term normal (27 years on average) in some areas of Nebraska, and nitrogen leaching below 30 inches of soil depth as estimated by the Maize-N model in those areas. Nitrogen leaching is based on the assumption of a silty clay loam soil with organic matter content of 3% and a nitrogen application of 50 lb/acre on May 1. Weather data for all locations are provided by UNL High Plains Regional Climate Center.
Location 2015 March-June rainfall, inches Long-term  mean March-June rainfall, inches 2015 rainfall in excess of long-term mean, inches 2015 and long-term mean (in parentheses) potential N leaching below 30-inch depth, lb/acre
Mead 14.6 12.2 2.4 5 (12)
Lincoln 17.4 12.1 5.3 78 (7)
Nebraska City 15.6 13.6 2.0 28 (25)
Beatrice 16.0 12.9 3.1 69 (11)
York 13.6 11.9 1.7 8 (9)
Clay Center 13.5 12.1 1.4 1 (12)
North Platte 11.9 8.6 3.3 0 (0)