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Nitrogen Smart: Interactive online courses can help farmers increase profitability, improve water quality

urea anhydrous nitrogen fertilizer

University of Minnesota Extension’s popular Nitrogen Smart program is now available as three interactive online courses, featuring short videos and quick quizzes to test your knowledge.

Nitrogen Smart is better known for its in-person meetings around the state each winter. A survey of past Nitrogen Smart participants found that over 75% changed at least one practice as a result of attending the meeting. Our survey data and estimates show a value of at least $3,200 for each attendee when calculating acreage, fertilizer cost savings, and potential increased yield.

The free online courses takes about three hours to complete but you can easily pause the session and complete it at another time.

Nitrogen Smart Fundamentals course

This educational program aims to help farmers improve their bottom line while also helping Minnesota meet environmental objectives on water quality. Participants will develop a deeper understanding of nitrogen and how it behaves in the environment. The online course will give you the tools you need to calculate an efficient, profitable N rate for your farm and tailor management practices to your region, soil type, and other conditions.

Learn about:
  • The nitrogen cycle
  • Nitrogen fertilizer sources 
  • Nitrogen Best Management Practices (BMPs) 
  • Fertilizer N rate recommendations and the MRTN guidelines 
  • Region- and crop-specific recommendations 
  • Emerging nutrient management technologies
One of the messages that is stressed is that while rate recommendations and application BMPs are applicable under a wide range of situations, they are just a starting place from which variation may be necessary depending on soil type, weather conditions, and other factors. The key to making appropriate adjustments to maximize profitability while minimizing loss to the environment is understanding the nitrogen cycle and where and when adjustments to fertilizer applications are warranted.

Advanced Nitrogen Smart courses   

After taking the Nitrogen Smart Fundamentals course, you can take two Advanced Nitrogen Smart courses: one on manure management and the other on the 4Rs.
Manure management
Livestock manures have been used as a crop fertilizer source for thousands of years and continues to be a valuable source of crop nutrients, even with the advent of synthetic fertilizers. Because its nutrient content and availability can vary widely, it's important to develop a management plan that will optimize crop productivity while protecting water quality.

Register here

In this advanced course, Extension manure management specialist Melissa Wilson and Extension educator Brad Carlson discuss the specifics of manure as a fertilizer source and how to best manage it.
Topics include:
  • Benefits and challenges of using manure in crop production
  • What determines nutrient content in manure
  • How manure storage and handling affect nutrient availability
  • Importance of manure sampling and testing
  • How application methods and timing affect nitrogen loss
  • Practices to optimize manure use and minimize nitrogen losses
A deep dive into the 4Rs
In this course, Extension nutrient management specialist Dan Kaiser and Extension educator Brad Carlson go into detail on how the 4Rs affect each other and how to make adjustments based on the practices you use.

Register here

The 4Rs were developed in collaboration between university researchers and the fertilizer industry during the late 1980s. The 4Rs promote a nutrient management approach that balances crop productivity with environmental preservation:
  • Right rate: Nitrogen rates have the potential to make the largest impact on both crop production and the environment. The key to optimizing rates is to understand plant needs and what is provided naturally by the soil.
  • Right source: Once in a plant-available form, the plant doesn't distinguish one N source from another. However, there are differences in how N fertilizers interact with the environment, which can affect both availability and loss.
  • Right time: The nutrient supply should be applied at a time which minimizes loss. Several factors influence N availability - including fertilizer source, the use of stabilizers or inhibitors, and field conditions - and together they help determine when it's most appropriate for that particular N source to be applied.
  • Right place: Placement is often determined by the source and timing, however there are several considerations that need to be made to ensure the fertilizer is plant available when applied.
Thanks to the generous support of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Nitrogen Smart is available at no cost.

Learn more about Nitrogen Smart at


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Support for Minnesota Crop News nutrient management blog posts is provided in part by the Agricultural Fertilizer Research & Education Council (AFREC).

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