Farmers have always paid attention to the weather. Quite easy to understand why.
Indiana grows a lot of corn and soybeans – more than 5 million acres each last year. That many crops get too much water and nutrients for farmers to get their best yields.
Storms can help, bringing rain to irrigate the state’s agricultural fields. However, those storms can have an added benefit to the Indiana crop: They can also help provide some of the nutrients that the fields so desperately need.
For this part of The Scrub Hub, we will answer the questions: How do storms, and more specifically lightning strikes, help fertilize Indiana corn and soybeans? We spoke with an expert to bring you answers. Keep reading to learn what they said.
More than three-quarters of the earth’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen, one of the main nutrients plants need to grow. But nitrogen in the air is not available to plants in the form it is, so fertilizers are often used to introduce nitrogen into the soil.
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However, there is a natural way to do this: Lightning.
In simple words, a lightning strike transforms that unavailable nitrogen into the atmosphere into something that can help plants grow. This process is called nitrogen fixation and is like a laboratory experiment that takes place in the air.
Natural atmospheric nitrogen is seriously stable, according to Jeffrey Volenec, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University. It usually needs an extraordinary amount of heat or pressure, sometimes both, to break it down into a usable form, he said.
The heat and electricity around a lightning bolt are strong enough to do the job, breaking the bonds of those nitrogen molecules. When this happens, the nitrogen atoms look for something to capture, often forming a new bond with oxygen, one of the other gases most prevalent in the air. This forms nitrogen dioxide.
That new molecule disperses in cloud water and travels down to earth through raindrops, Volenec said. There it penetrates the soil and nitrates can be absorbed by plants – nature’s way of fertilizing.
While lightning and storms add nitrogen to the soil, it is by no means a substitute for the fertilizers that farmers often apply to their soil.
First of all, the amounts are gone.
Depending on the field, a farmer, on average, can add anywhere from about 150 to 180 pounds of nitrogen per hectare throughout the year. Lightning adds only a fraction of that: roughly 10 to 15 pounds per acre per year, according to Volenec.
With those figures, natural nitrogen accounts for only 7% of what many fields need.
Alsoshtë also a matter of time. Nutrients should be applied at very specific times to have maximum effect, such as immediately after sowing crops and before corn flakes in later summer. But farmers can not control when storms come and when they bring nitrogen.
It may be at a time when crops may not really use it: The storm may come before the harvest is sown, or at the end of the season after they have reached maturity.
“The possibility of it being obtained from plants may occur,” Volenec said, “but it is not certain.”
Even if taken, farmers do not know how much. Importers It is important for farmers to be able to measure the amount of nutrients they are adding to their crops. They have it in a science – some acres can get less, some more – and they regularly monitor nutrient levels to make sure plants have what they need and ideally nothing is running out or digesting .
But this is not possible if farmers rely on the nutrients that come from lightning.
In fact, many legumes including soy, alfalfa and clover do not need much nitrogen at all. This is because they have a biological process that helps them create their own nitrates. They can absorb some of the extra nitrogen that penetrates the soil by lightning, but it is not necessary and does not replace what they produce naturally.
Even lightning-burning manure may not be a major addition to Indiana corn fields and soybean fields, Volenec said, it could be a major contributor to state uncontrolled lands such as forests, pastures and pastures.
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In many cases, lightning is one of the only ways these soils get nitrogen and the stimulus that comes from those nutrients. Farmers can sometimes apply a little nitrogen to a pasture to graze livestock: about 50 pounds per hectare. This means that approximately 10 to 15 kilograms of lightning is a much larger piece, as much as 20% to 30%.
In the end, the plants do not care where the nitrogen comes from, Volenec said.
“They do not discriminate whether it comes from lightning or spraying or manure,” he said. “Plants take it and use it the same way.”
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The IndyStar environmental reporting project has been made possible through the generous support of the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Non-Profit Trust.