Source: Peter Thomison, Laura Lindsey, OSU
Have very dry soil conditions increase 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 the growing leaves. Under unfavorable growing conditions, especially drought, this conversion process is slowed, 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 return 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 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 harvest 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 the plant gets older and nitrates are converted to proteins in the ear.