Tractor and NH3 tank on a farm

When you hook up an anhydrous ammonia (NH3) tank to head to the field, you're preparing to provide your corn crop a cost-efficient source of nitrogen. You're also taking responsibility for a potentially dangerous chemical that can be deadly if not handled responsibly.

From beginning to end, it's important to ensure you're safe and productive whenever working with anhydrous. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Before you get started

Before you even hook up the hitch of a tank, start with a review of safety equipment and procedures. Even when taking care of quick, easy jobs working with anhydrous tanks, you need to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Even the smallest physical exposure to the chemical can be harmful.

"You may not be interacting with the anhydrous that much. But with some repairs, you’re still six inches from the pipe. If something fails, the consequences can be dire. Wear gloves and goggles every time you get off the tractor," according to Nationwide Agribusiness Risk Management Consultant and Agronomist Derek Hommer. "There are a lot of farmers walking around with permanent burns on their hands and cheeks because they didn't have any PPE on when they worked on an anhydrous tank. A simple set of goggles and gloves could have prevented those burns."

Hommer recommends goggles that include a face shield. Many manufacturers make products like this specifically for working around NH3. He also recommends having on hand a squeeze bottle of water in the event of eye or face exposure. A small bottle of five to six ounces can be enough to buy you some time and begin rinsing the eyes or face until you can reach a larger emergency water supply to help prevent long-term damage if you're directly exposed to anhydrous. See more on PPE to wear when working with anhydrous.

Check your equipment

Before even turning a wheel, make sure all valves and tank outlets are closed. And confirm that all connections are in good shape and aren't at risk of rupturing or breaking and causing leaks before, during or after application. This can help prevent a small issue from becoming a large one that can threaten the operator's health and safety and potentially limit crop yield potential.

"Shut those tanks off when traveling between fields," Hommer said. "When I hear about releases that happen when hoses get tangled up, I always say if they'd just shut that valve off, those releases would have just been a gallon or two. It’s so important to shut supply valves before traveling to the field or between fields."

Also, make sure you’re keeping close track of how much NH3 you’re applying. Documenting applications will help confirm you’re providing the right amount of anhydrous in each field.

"One thing I encourage is to spot-check tanks, especially after the first application of the year, then occasionally as tanks are refilled. The farmer should write down the acres that they used the tank on, then weigh the tank back, and figure how many pounds of anhydrous they actually applied versus how many pounds they intended to apply."

Apply NH3 carefully

Once in the field, a new kind of liability is born, and it’s a call to operate in a safe, courteous manner. It requires close inspection of application equipment before getting underway. This starts by working to maintain a safe working environment. Be aware of wind speed and direction, ensure furrows are sealing correctly, and supply valves are closed tightly when unhooking tanks. These steps will prevent anhydrous from unnecessarily entering the open air instead of making it into the ground where it belongs.

If you are applying on a custom basis for another farmer, safety is an even greater priority. Your responsibility starts with good equipment maintenance. For example, anhydrous hoses are small in diameter, and even well-maintained equipment can get plugged by foreign material. Plugs can happen in the filter, distributer, or in the hose or knife tube. Inspecting these types of components is an important part of ensuring effective applications.

Watch these other components

The operator should also periodically inspect each unit to make sure it is applying correctly. Parts like broken shanks and plugged closers are easy to spot, but you should also be diligent in checking that each unit is applying the right rate of liquid. Without doing so, inconsistent rates can be applied, leaving streaks in the field even weeks after NH3 was applied. This sets the crop up for yield loss later in the growing season.

"If while applying you discover plugged or reduced flow units, stop until the source of the problem can be resolved. Further, I recommend that you document where you are, and what acres you have applied since you last checked," Hommer said. "You will want to watch those acres closely and mitigate the nutrient deficiency as soon as possible."

Act quickly if your application misses the mark

Even with the most well-maintained equipment, misapplications can still happen. If they do, quick action can help prevent crop damage.

"Inconsistent NH3 applications can show up later on in the growing season as lost yield, since a corn plant needs nitrogen every day to grow," Hommer said. "Sometimes, we can spot these types of issues early on and apply more to remedy the situation. It's important to act quickly to prevent severe yield loss."

Apply NH3 at the right time

Application timing is another part of a sound NH3 management strategy. Many producers have historically applied in the fall. But spring applications are less prone to leaching. Hommer also recommends considering a nitrogen stabilizer product or employing a split-application strategy to make sure your crop is getting the consistent nutrition it needs.

"Fall-applied anhydrous is more susceptible to leaching in the soil. People are moving to putting in the ground closer to when the crop needs it,” he said. “Nitrogen stabilizers can keep it locked into the soil longer, and split applications can spread the risk of loss so you can make sure nitrogen is in the soil where the crop can access it.”

When you're done in the field

Good anhydrous management doesn't stop when you’re done in the field. Hommer encourages farmers to conduct a post-application inspection of all equipment, then a final check of applied pounds versus acres. This helps ensure both continued safe operations and that each field has received the nitrogen it needs.