Wednesday, April 11, 2007

NH3 effects...

Applying anhydrous ammonia is a job few farmers relish, and most would gladly drop like hot rock if an alternative were available. The reasons are simple: it's dangerous, hard to handle, requires special equipment, and involves constant timing with your supplier to be efficient. Unfortunately, NH3 is a superior source of nitrogen - the stuff of life (or at least, yields) for corn.

But there is a subtler side to NH3, I think. Because it is such a pain for humans to handle, we often drift into thinking it must be equally hard on the soil. This correlation is exploited by organic or other detractors via anthropomorphizing the soil.
It is a common and seemingly natural tendency for humans to perceive inanimate objects as having human characteristics, although few believe this to be of significance. Common examples of this tendency include naming cars or begging machines to work. In 1953, the U.S. government began assigning hurricanes names; initially the names were feminine, and shortly thereafter masculine names were introduced.

The fact that that dirt contains living organisms is not news, of course. Extending this liveliness to the particles of soil is easily done in our minds. The result is when ammonia stings our noses, we sympathize with the field we are fertilizing. After all, there is no worse label than a "harsh chemical".

Not much objective evidence to support this lovely picture, however. Indeed after using NH3 and other fertilizers for decades, yields are trending up, not down.
Due to the chemistry of anhydrous ammonia, the injection band initially is toxic to plant growth because of high pH. In a relatively short period of time after injection into the soil the ammonia is converted to nitrate and the pH of the injection band decreases. Nitrate is the primary form of nitrogen used by corn from the soil. At this point the corn plant can use the fertilizer and provide higher yields. [More]
Much of the allure of agrarian agriculture is the elevation of clay particles to some kind of life-form. Because life (plants) spring from it, it is an easy step to take. In the process, however, we attach limitations and rules that may or may not apply.

The soil is "exhausted", we say, as if dirt feels weariness. We talk of soil "health". Qualities we find pleasing, like sponginess or rich odors are designated as signs of soil "health". Moreover, as we develop more and more abstruse technologies, the idea of soil as simple and uncomplicated is a relief. But I'm convinced we are fooling ourselves.

I don't think we have any idea what the "carrying capacity" for good farmland is, for example. All we know is how much yield we have been able to achieve to date. I think we will look back on 200-bushel corn with the amusement we now use for pre-hybrid corn yields.

And people then will mutter about exhausting the soil, I expect. But soil is not human, and not even alive. And the effort to make this fantasy true is our generation's form of idol-worship, maybe.


Anonymous said...

What you say about Annhydrous is true. Growing up in the '80's my Father would not use annhydrous at all because of its danger to him and the fear it would hurt any of us kids. However, I cannot help but think there is something needing addressed regarding its use. Granted it is generally more economical than a comparative fertilizer, but what about an alternative production practice. I think there are great things being done on farms using a winter cover crop to generate nitrogen for the following year in a manner cost effective to NH3. While I am not saying NH3 should necessarily be abandoned, perhaps there are alternatives, just more research and attempts are needed rather than just looking at something like a cover crop as a "new age" fad. And while I do agree the business of farming does need to be viewed as a business, an agrarian viewpoint is not a back step, but rather a weaving of what you do with those you love. One reason for the buddy seat in a combine.

John Phipps said...

Please be aware I use the term agrarian to denote producers (of any size) who sell not just products, but process - organic, local, free-range, etc. It is part of my segmentation of agriculture into recreational, agrarian, and industrial producers.

[I have written about this in TP and blogged about this as well. You can find more by clicking on "production" in the labels at the bottom.]

None of these terms for me defines how good a farmer is or any particular methodology. Nor do I imply that agrarians are silly New Agers or industrial farmers are rapacious scoundrels. I am an industrial producer, and I welcome criticism on my practices, although I can find no objective measure that indicates a failure of stewardship.

The values we embrace are not necessarily correlated to our production methods or size. On the whole, I often find large farmers are successful because they do the right things.

It is also somewhat reassuring.

Anonymous said...

My apologies, I did not intend to imply that you had made claims as such. Rather, I was referring to an overall image being laid out in the industry. I think your presentation of the view points and diversity is balanced and favors dialogue between the segments. My post simply was to state to your many readers that NH3 is not the end all be all, and while it is an efficient method of N supply, other options are available and are not just to be used in niche operations. Thanks for the chance to share.