Potential for nitrogen loss from heavy rainfalls

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.
Editor’s note: This article was reprinted with permission from the University of Wisconsin. For more information about this article, please contact Carrie Laboskie at 608-263-2795 or email: laboski@wisc.edu

Many soils are saturated and some fields have had or still have standing water in all or part of the field. The million dollar question is: How much nitrogen loss should I expect from denitrification or leaching and what should I do about it? I’ll discuss how to evaluate the potential for nitrogen loss and corrective measures that may be taken.


Denitrification is the process whereby nitrate is converted to the gases dinitrogen or nitrous oxide and subsequently released to the atmosphere. This conversion is carried out by soil bacteria. Denitrification can be a significant mechanism for nitrogen loss on medium- and fine-textured soil. It is generally not an issue on coarse-textured soils because they do not remain saturated for any length of time. There are several environmental factors that determine if denitrification occurs and to what extent.

  1. Nitrate. Nitrate must be present for denitrification to occur. If nitrate is not present or is in low concentrations, denitrification losses will be minimal.
  2. Soil water content and aeration. Denitrification occurs in wet soils with low oxygen concentrations. Denitrification increase with the length of time the soil is saturated. Standing water may result in a greater percentage of nitrate being denitrified.
  3. Temperature. Denitrification proceeds faster on warmer soils, particularly when soil temperature is greater than 75°F.
  4. Organic matter. Denitrification occurs because soil bacteria are breaking down organic matter under low oxygen conditions and the bacteria use nitrate in a biochemical process. Soils with low soluble organic carbon will have less potential for denitrification than soils with high soluble organic carbon. Thus, nitrate that resides deeper in the soil profile (below 12 inches) where there is less organic matter will have a greatly reduced or minimal probability of being denitrified.
  5. Soil pH. Denitrification is negligible in soils with a pH of less than five. Thus, pH likely doesn’t limit denitrification on most of the cropland.

Table 1 shows the combined effect of soil temperature and days of saturated soil on nitrogen loss. Thus, there is the possibility for significant nitrogen loss if soils remain saturated for more than three days.

It is important to keep in mind that nitrate must be present for denitrification to occur. So nitrogen losses will depend on the form of nitrogen that was applied and the time between application and saturated soil conditions. Table 2 provides estimates of the time it takes for various nitrogen fertilizer materials to transform to nitrate. Conversion of ammonium based fertilizers to nitrate takes one to two weeks. Urea must first be hydrolyzed to ammonium before it is converted to nitrate. If a urease inhibitor was used with urea, then the length of time that it takes for urea to convert to ammonium may be extended 10 to 14 days depending upon the rate of inhibitor used. Injection of anhydrous ammonia increases the soil pH for several weeks, which in turn limits the amount of ammonium that is converted to nitrate. If a nitrification inhibitor was used, it will also extend the time it takes for ammonium to convert to nitrate.

Table 1. Estimated nitrogen losses from denitrification as influenced by soil temperature and number of days the soil is saturated.

Soil temperature (°F) Days saturated Nitrogen loss (percent of applied)
55 to 60 5 10
10 25
75 to 80 3 60
5 75
7 85
9 95

(From Shapiro, University of Nebraska)

Table 2. Approximate time until fertilizer N is in the nitrate form.

Fertilizer material Approximate time until ammonium Approximate time until nitrate
Ammonium sulfate,
10-34-0, MAP, DAP
0 weeks 1 to 2 weeks
Anhydrous ammonia   3 to 8 weeks
Urea 2 to 4 days 1.25 to 2.5 weeks
Ammonium nitrate 25 percent is ammonium, 0 weeks 25 percent in 1 to 2 weeks
25 percent is nitrate, 0 weeks
UAN 50 percent from urea in 2 to 4 days
25 percent is ammonium, 0 weeks
50 percent in 1.25 to 2.5 weeks
25 percent in 1 to 2 weeks
25 percent is nitrate, 0 weeks

Here’s an example of how to estimate the amount of nitrate that might have been lost. If 120 lb N/a as UAN was applied after planting corn and four days before saturated soil conditions existed and the soil remained saturated for five days, you might expect 20-25 lb N/a to have been denitrified. 120 lb N/a x 25 percent = 30 lb N/a in the nitrate form, assuming minimal conversion of ammonium and urea to nitrate (Table 2). 30 lb N/a as nitrate x 75 percent of nitrate denitrified over five days = 22.5 lb N/a lost. Please note that these are estimates of nitrogen loss, and should not be considered exact.

Another method that could be used to assess the nitrogen status of your fields is to use the pre-sidedress nitrate test (PSNT). If the concentration of nitrogen in this one foot soil sample is greater than 21 ppm, then there should be adequate nitrogen for the crop. There are a couple caveats when using the PSNT in this manner. First, it will work best if nitrogen was broadcast rather than band applied. Soil samples collected from fields where nitrogen was banded, may not accurately represent the nitrogen status of the field. Second, even in medium- and fine-textured soil, nitrate may have moved into the second foot of soil. In this case, the PSNT won’t measure all of the nitrogen that is in the root zone and available for the crop.

If all or most of your nitrogen for corn is coming from an organic nitrogen source (manure and/or forage legume), then the PSNT can still be used to estimate nitrogen credits that are subtracted from your selected maximum return to nitrogen (MRTN) nitrogen rate. Note: when average May-June soil temperatures are more than 1°F below the long-term average, the nitrogen credit is often underestimated.
Where the entire crop nitrogen requirement has not yet been applied, sidedress or other postemergence applications should contain the balance of the crop nitrogen requirement plus 25 to 50 percent of the fertilizer nitrogen that was already applied.

Options for applying supplemental nitrogen when it is needed include traditional sidedressing with anhydrous ammonia or N solutions. UAN solutions can also be applied as a surface band or as a broadcast spray over the growing crop. Dry nitrogen fertilizers (urea, ammonium sulfate, or ammonium nitrate) can also be broadcast applied to the crop. Leaf burning from solution or dry broadcast applications should be expected. Appling the dry materials when foliage is dry will help minimize burning. Broadcast nitrogen rates should be limited to 90 lb N/a for corn with four to five leaves and to 60 lb N/a for corn at the 8-leaf stage. Under nitrogen deficient conditions, corn will respond to supplemental nitrogen applications through the tassel stage of development if the nitrogen can be applied.


Nitrate is the form of nitrogen that can be leached when precipitation (or irrigation) exceeds the soil’s ability to hold water in the crop root zone. Leaching is a much bigger issue on sandy soils that typically hold one inch of water per foot of soil compared to medium- and fine-textured soils that hold 2.5 to 3 inches of water per foot of soil. Rainfall totals over the past week likely caused nitrate leaching out of the root zone for potato (18 to 24 inch root zone) and perhaps also corn ( approximately 36 inch root zone) grown on sandy soils. To determine if nitrate could leach out of the root zone, compare the rainfall totals in your area to the number of inches of water that your soil can hold in the crop root zone.

The amount of nitrogen loss from leaching is dependent not only on rainfall, but also on the amount of nitrogen in the nitrate form. Using the information in Table 2, it is possible to estimate how much nitrate may have been leached. For example, if 75 lb N/a as ammonium sulfate was applied when potatoes were planted four weeks prior to the rainfall, and 125 lb N/a as ammonium nitrate was applied three days before the rainfall, then 135 to 140 lb N/a may have leached. The 75 lb N/a as ammonium sulfate at planting would have already been converted to nitrate plus 50 percent of the 125 lb N/a as ammonium nitrate is in the nitrate form = 137.5 lb N/a. The potato crop will have used some of the N that was applied at planting, thus leaching losses will be less than 135 lb N/a

Urea is highly water soluble. If the leaching rainfall occurred before urea had time to hydrolyze (two to four days), then urea may have leached. However, if there were more than four days between urea application and the leaching rainfall, then it is likely that all of the N would have converted to ammonium and remains within the root zone.

Nitrogen best management practices for corn on sandy soils is to sidedress or split apply nitrogen. If sidedress nitrogen applications have not yet occurred, then growers should proceed as planned. If split nitrogen applications have occurred, supplemental nitrogen should be applied and should equal the approximate amount of nitrate that may have leached out of the root zone. Corn grown on irrigated sandy soils are highly responsive to nitrogen fertilization. On non-irrigated sandy soils, water (usually too little) limits crop yield more than nitrogen. Under nitrogen deficient conditions, corn will respond to supplemental nitrogen applications through the tassel stage of development if the nitrogen can be applied.

Many potato fields may have already received their last application of nitrogen fertilizer and are quickly nearing the maximum rate of nitrogen uptake for the crop. Thus it is imperative to make sure that there is adequate nitrogen for the crop. Nitrogen can be applied up to 60 days after emergence; later applications may not improve yield or quality. Supplemental nitrogen application rates could be in the range of the amount of nitrate that was leached from all N applications applied after planting. Monitor the crop’s nitrogen status using the petiole nitrate test to determine if later nitrogen applications may be needed.

For irrigated corn or potato fields, nitrogen solutions can be injected into the irrigation water (fertigation). Water application rates should not exceed the infiltration rate of the soil and should not exceed the soil’s ability to hold the water in the root zone of the crop. Thus, if the soil profile is full of water, you may need to wait a few days before fertigating. The key is to manage the water so that the nitrogen fertilizer that is being applied is not leached.

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