University of Vermont

Pre Sidedress Nitrogen Test for Corn The Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Soil Test (PSNT) For Predicting Nitrogen Needs for Field Corn

Bill Jokela, formally Extension Associate Professor, Department of Plant and Soil Science, University of Vermont

How much nitrogen fertilizer does a corn crop need? That’s a difficult question to answer because every situation is different. Use the Vermont Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test (PSNT) to answer that question for your farm. The PSNT recommends the proper amount of fertilizer N for each corn field on the farm…and can save you money.

You may be applying too much or too little nitrogen on different fields. Applying too much wastes money on unnecessary fertilizer and increases the possibility of environmental pollution by nitrate leaching. Applying too little can reduce yields. The PSNT is a tool to get it right. The Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test started in Vermont, but it has been adopted by most states in the Northeast and many in the Midwest.

Many Sources of N for Corn
Corn is a big user of nitrogen. A corn silage crop takes up 150 or more pounds of N per acre depending on yield. Much of this can be supplied from nonfertilizer sources – manure, plowed down crop residues, and soil organic matter. Nitrogen from these sources can reduce or even eliminate the need for N fertilizer.

However, it is difficult to predict how much N will be supplied to plants by manure and other soil sources. This is because much of the N is in the organic form, a form not directly available to plants. Microorganisms in the soil must break down the organic N to ammonium or nitrate, simpler forms that plants can take up. Also, some of the nitrogen can be lost by leaching or by microbial conversion to N gas, a process known as denitrification.

To add to the complexity, all these processes vary greatly depending on rainfall, temperature, soil moisture, and other conditions. So nitrogen availability can be quite different in different fields or in the same field in different years.

That is why the PSNT is such a useful tool. It measures nitrate, the main form of nitrogen taken up by plants, shortly before the big demand for N by the corn crop in midsummer. By this time, much of the N from manure and other sources has been broken down and can be measured in the soil as nitrate. The amount of nitrate at that time also serves as an indicator of the potential for N release during the rest of the season. If the PSNT calls for additional N fertilizer, you can apply it as a sidedress or topdress application. This is the best time to apply N fertilizer on most soils in Vermont to maximize the efficiency of uptake by corn and to minimize losses of N.

PSNT Based on Vermont Research
The Pre-Sidedress Nitrate Test was developed by Fred Magdoff of the Plant and Soil Science Department at UVM.  Results of research from Vermont (Magdoff and Jokela) and four other northeastern states (PA, CT, NH, and NY) are summarized in the figure. It includes data from over 270 field sites, 150 from VT, covering a range of management situations (manure, previous crop, tillage, etc.). At each field site, a soil sample was taken for PSNT and the yield response to N fertilizer was measured. In general, where the PSNT was low, especially below 15 ppm, corn silage yields increased substantially from the addition of fertilizer N. On the other hand, fields testing above the threshold of 25 ppm (no fertilizer recommended) showed little or no increase from applying N.

As with any test or recommendation, there are some limitations. The main one is that the PSNT cannot account for unexpected changes in conditions after soil sampling. For example, if unusually heavy rains occur a few days after sampling, significant nitrate can be lost to leaching or denitrification. If this occurs, and if there is time, resample the field. If not, adjust the recommended N rate based on best judgment to account for suspected losses.

How to Use the PSNT
Sampling for the PSNT is a little different than routine soil sampling. Here’s what you need to do. Sample fields when corn plants are 8 to 12 inches tall. Take at least 15 to 20 cores per field to a depth of 12 inches – deeper than for the standard soil test. Avoid sampling the starter fertilizer band near the row. Dry samples as soon as possible to prevent changes in nitrate level from microbial activity, unless samples can be delivered to the lab the same day. If drying will be delayed more than a few hours, keep samples in a cooler. Once the lab receives the samples, analysis will be done within one business day. Results will be mailed or can be accessed via the Web. Check instructions in test kit for more detail about sample handling and drying procedures.

To obtain PSNT kits (sample bag, form, and instructions), contact the UVM Agricultural and Environmental Testing Lab at 802-656-3030 or 800-244-6402 or your county UVM Extension office. For specific recommendations and more information, check the extension publication Nutrient Recommendations for Field Crops in Vermont.

This site is maintained by, Plant & Soil Science Department, University of Vermont.

Sponsored by:

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. University of Vermont Extension, Burlington, Vermont.University of Vermont Extension and U.S. Department of Agriculture, cooperating, offer education and employment to everyone without regard to race, color, national origin, sex, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, or marital or familial status

Last modified March 20 2008 11:02 AM

Contact UVM © 2019 The University of Vermont - Burlington, VT 05405 - (802) 656-3131