Knee High by the 4th of July

5 Jul

In the spring, farmers spray their cornfields with anhydrous ammonia before planting.  In the last few years, I seem to hear more and more people and groups wanting to end this practice.  I understand why.  Anhydrous ammonia is dangerous to apply.  It will burn human tissue, and inhaling it can be fatal.  Despite the dangers of handling it, people will steal it from the tanks sitting in fields to make meth.  then there are the environmental concerns.  The ammonia can leach into the waterways and pollute the ground water system.  It has been blamed for the loss of biodiversity in areas where it is used.  So why do farmers continue to use something that is so dangerous and harmful?

4th of July sunset over the cornfield

When we were cleaning the field and preparing it to be planted this spring, there was a big burn pile that was cleaned up after anhydrous had been sprayed but before the corn was planted.

This is field corn.

This is field corn on anhydrous ammonia.

Any questions?  Here it is again.

Plain ground in front; fertilized ground in the back.

The old saying “knee high by the 4th of July” was an old guide to gauge the progress of corn.  Today, if you’ve ever seen an Iowa cornfield, that seems silly.  The use of anhydrous ammonia will not end until there is less of a demand for corn products:  corn-fed beef, corn chips, corn Chex.  How many products have “high fructose corn syrup” as an ingredient?  How many people have ever put ethanol in their cars?  Right or wrong, anhydrous ammonia isn’t going away, and it is fueled by people’s desire for the many products that come from corn.


2 Responses to “Knee High by the 4th of July”

  1. Michael July 16, 2010 at 11:58 am #

    One small correction, you cannot spray anhydrous ammonia (NH3) on a field, you need to inject it into the soil. Since NH3 is a compressed gas (compressed until it becomes liquid) when it is sold to farmers it will not stay in the area if you spray it on. It must be put underground where it ties onto water in the soil.
    Working with NH3 is dangerous because of the heat it sucks up when it converts back to a gas. Thus anything it touches actually freezes. That and the fact that we are not made to breath ammonia.
    Nitrogen is all around us in the air we breath. Most NH3 that is not used by plants is released into the air again as nitrogen and hydrogen gas. NH3 does not want to stay a liquid tied to soil. It wants to convert to a gas and go back into the air, thus it is not likely to leach.
    There are liquid and dry alternatives to NH3 but most of them start out as liquid nitrogen tied up in a liquid or dry form. Even organic fertilizer is a source of NH3, thus the ammonia smell from the drying manure that makes organic fertilizer. Organics are just a less dense source.
    I don’t use much NH3 in my fields. I prefer to use a 32% nitrogen liquid. It is more stable in the soil and can be applied after the corn is up, when the corn needs it the most.

    • edenhills July 17, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

      You are very correct. This is why I have contracted my nephew to do the actual work.

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