Reference strips and precision sensors for increased nitrogen use efficiency in wheat production

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2013: $49,907.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Western
State: Montana
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Olga Walsh
Montana State University


  • Agronomic: wheat


  • Crop Production: foliar feeding, no-till, nutrient cycling, application rate management, tissue analysis
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research, workshop, youth education
  • Energy: energy conservation/efficiency
  • Farm Business Management: agricultural finance
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    While nitrogen is a key nutrient limiting wheat grain production, its use efficiency is only about 30%. As nitrogen is lost via volatilization and plant loss, run off and leaching, immobilization and denitrification, about 70% of funds wheat growers invest annually in nitrogen fertilizer is being lost as well. Non-limiting nitrogen reference strips in combination with precision sensors such as GreenSeeker® (Trimble Navigation Ltd., Sunnyvale, CA) has been successfully used throughout the midwestern U.S. and elsewhere to accurately estimate crop yield potential and crop’s prospective responsiveness to nitrogen mid-season. This methodology enables producers to generate topdress fertilizer recommendations based on the crop’s precise requirement for nitrogen. This system helps to significantly increase nitrogen use efficiency and has been shown to net wheat growers more than $25 per acre in fertilizer savings.

    Researchers at Montana State University are aiming to develop algorithms for Montana wheat varieties and growing conditions within two to three years. This project will be instrumental in ensuring that wheat growers are prepared to successfully utilize the algorithms and are equipped with knowledge and expertise to fully benefit from sensor-based technologies. During each year of this two-year project, we will organize three on-farm demonstrations of non-limiting nitrogen reference strips established in growers’ fields, two hands-on workshops on the use of precision sensors, and an educational tour to attend Sensor-Based Nutrient Management conference, Des Moines, Iowa, to educate and train growers on how sensor-based technologies can increase the efficiency and profitability of their farm operations. We will train graduate students in sensor-based nutrient management and in conducting of on-farm research. We will produce multiple informational and educational materials, including articles and brochures to distribute to over 5,000 crop growers locally and to a much broader audience in Montana and elsewhere via precision nutrient management blog.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. To establish on-farm studies to demonstrate that non-limiting nitrogen reference strips - in combination with precision sensing methodologies – can be effectively used to accurately determine wheat demand for nitrogen.

    2. To educate and train wheat growers on how sensor-based technologies can increase the efficiency and profitability of their wheat production operations.

    3. To train graduate research assistants to utilize sensor-based technologies and to conduct on-farm research.

    This will be a two-year project consisting of on-farm studies and field demonstrations, hands-on workshops and training, and production of educational outreach materials such as brochures, publications and a blog to ensure the successful dissemination of achievements and results to over 5,000 growers operating in Golden Triangle – Montana’s primary wheat growing area.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.