Potential for Nitrate Problems in Drought Stressed Corn

Have very dry soil conditions increased the potential for toxic levels of nitrates in corn harvested for silage? Nitrates absorbed from the soil by plant roots are normally incorporated into plant tissue as amino acids, proteins and other nitrogenous compounds. Thus, the concentration of nitrate in the plant is usually low. The primary site for converting nitrates to these products is in growing green leaves. Under unfavorable growing conditions, especially drought, this conversion process is retarded, causing nitrate to accumulate in the stalks, stems and other conductive tissue. The highest concentration of nitrates is in the lower part of the stalk or stem. For example, the bulk of the nitrate in a drought-stricken corn plant can be found in the bottom third of the stalk. If moisture conditions improve, the conversion process accelerates and within a few days nitrate levels in the plant returns to normal.

The highest levels of nitrate accumulate when drought occurs after a period of heavy nitrate uptake by the corn plant. Heavy nitrate uptake begins at the V6 growth stage and continues through the silking stage.  Therefore, a drought during or immediately after pollination is often associated with the highest accumulation of nitrates. Extended drought prior to pollination is not necessarily a prelude to high accumulations of nitrate. The resumption of normal plant growth from a heavy rainfall will reduce nitrate accumulation in corn plants, and harvest should be delayed for at least 1 to 2 weeks after the rainfall. Not all drought conditions cause high nitrate levels in plant. If the soil nitrate supply is low in the dry soil surface, plant roots will not absorb nitrates. Some soil moisture is necessary for absorption and accumulation of the nitrates.

If growers want to salvage part of their drought damaged corn crop as silage, it's best to delay harvesting to maximize grain filling, if ears have formed. Even though leaves may be dying, the stalk and ear often have enough extra water for good keep. Kernels will continue to fill and the increases in dry matter will more than compensate for leaf loss unless plants are actually dying or dead. Moreover, if nitrate levels are high or questionable, they will decrease as plant gets older and nitrates are converted to proteins in the ear.     

If corn has been harvested and is suspected of being high in nitrates, it should be tested. Most labs that do forage testing can analyze samples.

The keys steps to collecting forage samples for nitrate testing can be found at https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/forage/nitrate-poisoning-in-cattle-sheep-and-goats/ which is also in the Mark Sulc article below.

For more information, check out the following:

Be Alert to Late-Season Potential Forage Toxicities -  Mark Sulc. Oct. 4, 2019  C.O.R.N. Newsletter. Available at: https://forages.osu.edu/news/be-alert-late-season-potential-forage-toxicities

Nitrates in Dairy Rations - Maurice L. Eastridge William P. Weiss, Ohio State University Fact Sheet AS-0003-99. Available on-line here.

About the C.O.R.N. Newsletter

C.O.R.N. Newsletter is a summary of crop observations, related information, and appropriate recommendations for Ohio crop producers and industry. C.O.R.N. Newsletter is produced by the Ohio State University Extension Agronomy Team, state specialists at The Ohio State University and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC). C.O.R.N. Newsletter questions are directed to Extension and OARDC state specialists and associates at Ohio State.