We may be going over the cliff if we don't do something.

It boils down to an exercise in risk management. The old system uses a single value, while this new system gives farmers a range to work with. If farmers are risk averse, they can use the high side of the rate range. If they are more willing to accept risk, they can use a lower side of the rate range, increasing their potential for economic reward.

Optical sensors are an indirect assessment of soil fertility because it is using plants to give an indication of how well that soil is supporting the crop. There is also a wildcard in this technology with making recommendations and improving efficiency. And that's if there will be federal dollars available for growers to adopt it.

Farmers may not yet be 100 percent comfortable with the changes, but they understand why it's being done and can see the value in it. All land-grant universities in the North Central region are moving toward a similar basis for generating nitrogen recommendations.

So, utilizing yield potential to dictate nitrogen recommendations may not be the most effective method, especially when nitrogen costs are high. Historically, we've treated excess nitrogen as cheap crop insurance. While it was then, that's not the case anymore.

It is intuitive that higher corn yields will result in greater nitrogen demand from the soil, but does that translate into higher nitrogen demand? Investigation of nitrogen rate studies conducted over several years reveals that there is not a strong relationship between maximum yield potential and the amount of nitrogen needed to achieve maximum yield.

Is it always economical to shoot for maximum yield? Research has shown that it's not. It may take the same amount of nitrogen to reach 179 bushels per acre as it does to only reach 170 bushels per acre. It's impossible to determine at what point the nitrogen level is reached to where it is no longer a benefit to gain more yield without a nitrogen rate trial in every field.