Soil Nitrate Testing Protocol Development for Lands Receiving Injected Manure

Injection of liquid manure provides a number of benefits to the environment and cropping systems. Manure placement under the soil surface conserves nitrogen by decreasing ammonia loss. Injection can be conducted in a manner consistent with no-till farming practices resulting in greater conservation of both soil and manure nutrients. Thus the value of manure to the crop is increased.

Traditional soil nitrate testing protocol recommendations were developed on lands that received evenly distributed broadcast manure applications. However, the banding of manure during injection presents a challenge for soil testing. Random placement of soil probes in banded fields could result in artificially high or low nitrate analysis depending on the sampling distance from manure bands.

Many states recommend such nitrate testing when the corn is about 12 inches tall. In the weeks following the soil test the crop will grow quickly with high N demand. Soil testing at this time allows the producer to determine if it will be profitable to sidedress the crop with an additional N source. For example, in Pennsylvania, the Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test (PSNT) is utilized to measure soil nitrate when corn is around the six-leaf stage (about 12-18 inches). Sidedress nitrogen need is calculated using the soil nitrate test level, expected yield, and nitrogen available from previous legumes or manure applications.

Research was conducted to explore nitrate distribution in a two dimensional view perpendicular to manure injection bands. In the proposed presentation the research results and new soil testing protocol for early-season nitrate will be discussed. This work provides an excellent tool to assure economic and environmental optimization of manure nitrogen.

What is the Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test (PSNT)?

In the mid-Atlantic region the Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test (PSNT) is an accepted tool for measurement of Nitrogen availability to a growing corn crop. The test is conducted when corn reaches the six-leaf stage by taking a number of twelve-inch deep soil samples. The samples are quickly dried or frozen to halt microbial N transformations and sent to a soils laboratory. A measure of soil Nitrate (NO3) level provides an indication whether the soil contains enough N to sustain maximum yield through the remainder of the growing season. The PSNT provides guidance to determine supplemental N fertilizer rates needed for soil with a low measured NO3 level. The PSNT becomes suspect on grounds receiving manure injection. Random sampling near manure bands may give artificial confidence in NO3 availability, while samples away from bands may indicate unnecessary need for commercial fertilizer.

The purpose of this work was to determine a PSNT sampling protocol for soils receiving injected manure.

What did we do?

Dairy manure was injected prior to planting of corn using shallow-disc injection spaced at 30 inches. When corn was at the six-leaf stage a ‘Monolith’ soil sampler was used to remove blocks of soil in a perpendicular direction to manure injection bands. Twelve-inch deep PSNT soil cores were systematically removed every inch across the thirty-inch sample. Each of these was evaluated individually for NO3 concentration. Composite cores of all thirty samples were also evaluated. To provide comparison, similar samples were attained in Monolith samples from Control (no manure) and Broadcast Manure plots.

What have we learned?

Others have suggested pairing manure samples to attain an average for manure-injected soils, with one sample attained in the band and one between bands. In our study, analysis of NO3 levels in a perpendicular direction to travel of manure injection equipment demonstrated concentrations in a sine wave pattern with higher concentrations located near the injection bands. Further analysis showed that five samples taken at any positions perpendicular to the manure band, and spaced six inches apart provide a reliable and repeatable sampling method. Four sets of samples taken in this manner (20 soil cores in total) were statistically better at predicting soil Nitrate level then ten paired soil sample sets (20 soil cores in total). Using this sampling protocol, marking of manure bands is not necessary. Testing can be performed at random locations in the field.

Future Plans

Manure injection conserves Nitrogen in comparison to broadcast application. Some manure injection implements can be used with minimal soil surface disturbance that is acceptable within no-till guidelines. In the mid-Atlantic region, manure injection is expected to become more common as economics and regulations drive increased Nitrogen conservation. Release of this PSNT soil sampling protocol will allow producers to accurately manage N in growing corn. The protocol will assist in adoption of manure injection utilization by providing a tool by which producers can gain confidence and knowledge centered on their manure nutrient management. Utilization of this sampling protocol will advance environmental goals in water and air quality.


Robert Meinen, Senior Extension Associate, Penn State University

Douglas Beegle, Peter Kleinman, Heather Karsten, Glenna Malcolm

Additional information

Penn State NorthEast SARE Sustainable Dairy Cropping Systems Project…

Video of research manure injection system


NRCS CIG and NESARE grants supported this work.

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