Warm and wet conditions favor denitrification

From September 6 turfiNfo, University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

Heavy rainfall across much of Eastern Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin has completely saturated most soils. Mix the wet, anaerobic soil conditions with warm temperatures and the risk for denitrification rapidly increases. Denitrification is a process of nitrogen loss within the nitrogen cycle.

Nitrate (NO3-) is the most commonly available nitrogen form in well-aerated soils. Under these conditions most soil microbes “breath” oxygen and produce carbon dioxide during respiration. However, saturated soils have very low levels of soil oxygen. This increases stress on plant roots and many soil microbes. Some organisms, particularly Bacillus and Pseudomonas species, can use sulfate and nitrate instead of oxygen for respiration. These other forms of respiration create stinky sulfide gas (think rotten eggs) and different nitrogen gases. The escaping nitrogen gases reduce the plant available nitrogen within the soil. The end result is light green/chlorotic leaves in low areas or when the soils remain saturated for several days.

Researchers have measured denitrification in the past. Under normal management, denitrification is typically less than 2% of the total amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied (Frank and Guertal, 2013).

Denitrification is typically low during wet spring months because the soils are quite cold. This slows microbial respiration and limits this denitrification. Turn up the soil heat and soil microbes rapidly consume soil-dissolved oxygen. Under these conditions, 45-90% or more of applied nitrogen fertilizer can be lost to the atmosphere through denitrification (Frank and Guertal, 2013).

While nitrate-nitrogen fertilizer sources like potassium nitrate are slightly more susceptible, denitrification can still be an issue for ammonium-based nitrogen sources (i.e. ammonium sulfate or urea).

These sources are quickly transformed from ammonium to nitrate, which can then be lost via denitrification when the soils become saturated.

Plant roots can also suffer from anaerobic soils. Water and nutrient uptake efficiency can decline as roots become starved for oxygen. Bluegrasses can have micronutrient deficiencies when soils are warm and wet. Iron chlorosis is the most common in Nebraska. It is characterized be yellowing between the leaf veins. It’s been described in these past turf iNfos:



If low areas continue to be chlorotic after the water recedes, application of nitrogen fertilizer can help restore soil nitrogen. Make sure the soil is sufficiently dry before the application or that fertilizer can also denitrify. If the turf is iron deficient, we recommend a foliar iron fertilizer application.

Bill Kreuser, Assistant Professor and Turfgrass Extension Specialist, wkreuser2@unl.edu


Frank, K. W., and E. A. Guertal. 2013. Nitrogen research in turfgrass. In Stier, John C., Horgan, Brian P., and Bonos, Stacy A. (eds.) Turfgrass: Biology, Use, and Management. Madison, Wisconsin: American Society of Agronomy.