Challenges For Nitrogen Management

Before I start talking about the environmental challenges, I would like to share some good news. In the early 1970s, we were producing about three-quarters of a bushel of corn per pound of nitrogen (N). Now we are closer to 1.16 bushels of corn per pound of N applied. This reflects a 51% increase in efficiency while we’ve only incurred a 12% increase in fertilizer use. The other good news is that crop prices have improved.

Unfortunately, some people in the environmental science area are concerned that these good prices have caused people in ag to think more liberally about our management than in the past, and they question whether this up-trend in crop output per unit input of N is going to continue because they think when prices are good for corn, ag management practices get sloppy.

Those people don’t know that 40% of the world’s population would not be here if not for our ability to provide food and fiber for their needs through fertilizer. The challenge is that organizations such as the Woods Hole Research Center and other environmental groups are pointing out that we have altered the N cycle as humans on the face of the Earth.

Some of this concern is related to the belief that there is too much reactive N in the environment. Reactive N is derived from a number of different inputs; it can be fossil fuel in origin or N fixation in ag eco-systems. The projections are that this steep curve in reactive N contributions to the environment will continue as the world’s population increases. With this comes an increased burden to try to protect our resources from this reactive N effect.

Increased Usage

There’s no denying the fact that we have increased the use of mineral fertilizers since the 1960s. In fact, half of the mineral N used on the Earth has been utilized since 1985. That has increased the transfer of N through the landscape over background values. What is natural background? According to a National Research Council publication, this was around 1 pound of N per acre per year within the Mississippi River Basin. Some data shows current losses in excess of about 27 pounds of N per acre per year in tile-drained areas within the Mississippi River Basin.

As you increase the N rate above the plateau in agronomic response, you increase the amount that’s not recovered by the crop. There’s a public perception that ag is using more than the recommended amount of N. Is it reality? In some cases, yes. In some cases, no.

EPA has said since March 2006, because of these environmental issues, that it is prudent to start to deal with these issues more directly now. That means everything we do in non-point source nutrient management is under greater scrutiny now that it ever has been before.

As a backdrop, 80% to 85% of our fertilizer market in the U.S. is concen­trated within the Mississippi River Basin. How do we manage within this system? Do we tell everyone to use a broad brush approach and tell everybody to cut back 50%? How many farmers and rural communities could remain economically viable with a 50% cut in N use?

We’ve got to do a better job of managing nutrients. Until now, the concern has been nitrate nitrogen and water quality discharge. Now there’s a possibility that urea could be a concern in estuaries and near-shore coastal areas. Some research suggests that there are some harmful algae species which appear to favor urea as an N source and they grow intensively if urea is the N form available to them. Some of the harmful algae blooms could lead to human health issues, because the naturally-occurring algae toxins are ingested by shellfish and, when consumed by humans, could lead to toxic poisoning. Even inhaling some of the aerosols induced by wave action, which are associated with some of the algae toxins, could be dangerous to humans.

We are working with leading scientists and paying close attention to environmental concerns. If we can get our crops to use the N more effectively, that will hopefully put more money in the farmer’s pocket, and reduce the risk of environmental N loss.

Working To Improve

The Midwest has been the brunt of criticism because of its use of fall-applied N for corn. Because the seed’s not planted until the spring, there’s concern about all this N lying around out there before the crop really reaches its peak N uptake demand. Many wonder what would happen if we did more spring N application and less application in the fall? Some data do indicate if we apply N in the spring for corn instead of the fall, there’s a chance in some systems to reduce that loss by almost 15%. In parts of the Midwest, spring-applied N instead of fall-applied N could cut drainage losses of nitrate N anywhere from zero to 25%.

On a worldwide basis, we are probably not above 40% to 50% efficiency with N use. Stated another way, no more than 40% to 50% of the fertilizer N applied worldwide in a given year is recovered or taken up by most cereal crops that same year.

As environmental pressures increase, we all need to strive to improve nutrient management practices that will enhance crop recovery of applied N. Newer technologies like crop N-sensing and variable-rate (maybe even variable source) N application may become increasingly important tools in the farmer’s and certified crop adviser’s (CCA) toolboxes.

Moving forward, I would challenge each of us to consider ways we can improve fertilizer best management practices to enhance crop nutrient recovery, farm profitability, and to protect water and air resources.

Leave a Reply

Fertilizer Stories

FertilizerYara Tampa Ammonia Terminal Garners ResponsibleAg Honors
November 25, 2015
Yara has received its first ResponsibleAg Certification for its Tampa, FL, Ammonia terminal location. This achievement demonstrates Yara’s commitment to Read More
Tiger Sul Crop Nutrient Calculator
FertilizerH.J. Baker Launches New Nutrient Calculator App
November 12, 2015
H.J. Baker, a global agriculture firm, has launched a new agronomic nutrient calculator app. This innovative and powerful tool will Read More
FertilizerH.J. Baker Hosting Chinese Delegation
November 12, 2015
International Agricultural firm, H.J. Baker, is hosting a delegation from Beijing Xinhefeng Agrochemicals Co., Ltd. (XHF), a leading distributor of Read More
corn field
FertilizerWest Central Distribution Launches Levesol DFC
November 5, 2015
Levesol DFC, a dry fertilizer compatible version, joins the original Levesol as another option for growers to maximize the potential Read More
Top 100 Articles
CropLife 100United Cooperative Acquires Four ADM Wisconsin Facilities
November 12, 2015
United Cooperative, based out of Beaver Dam, WI, recently acquired four grain and agronomy locations from Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Car Makes NASCAR Xfinity Series
October 29, 2015
BRANDT will join JR Motorsports with driver, Justin Allgaier, for the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity (NXS) Series season. Allgaier will pilot Read More
CHS Building exterior
CropLife 100CHS Leaders Help Shape Succession Report
October 22, 2015
Succession planning was listed as a main concern of cooperative leaders at this summer’s 15 regional CHS owner town hall Read More
Fall Harvest
CropLife 100Pinnacle Purchases Eight Regional Seed Companies
October 12, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings has announced the purchase of eight regional seed companies to advance its seed business. Pinnacle has acquired: Read More
MRM Agricultural Service
CropLife 100Pinnacle Acquires CropLife 100 Ag Retailer
October 8, 2015
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings, LLC has successfully acquired the Missouri-based agronomy business of MRM Agricultural Service, LLC and its affiliates (MRM). Operating Read More
Eric Jenks, Wilbur-Ellis
CropLife 100Wilbur-Ellis Opens Dry Fertilizer Storage And Blending Facility In Washington
October 8, 2015
Wilbur-Ellis Co., ranked No. 4 on the CropLife 100, has constructed and opened a 22,000-ton dry fertilizer storage and blending Read More
Latest News
HerbicidesBREAKING: EPA Pulls Registration On Dow’s Enlist …
November 25, 2015
EPA on Wednesday withdrew approval of a controversial new weed killer to be used on genetically modified corn and soybeans, Read More
FertilizerYara Tampa Ammonia Terminal Garners ResponsibleAg Honor…
November 25, 2015
Yara has received its first ResponsibleAg Certification for its Tampa, FL, Ammonia terminal location. This achievement demonstrates Yara’s commitment to Read More
ManagementReviewing The Top Ag Stories For 2015
November 24, 2015
Editors Eric Sfiligoj and Paul Schrimpf discuss the most noteworthy events from this past year in agriculture. Read More
EmployeesAgriculture Jobs May Be Plentiful, But New Grads Are Sc…
November 24, 2015
Close to 60,000 jobs are set to open up in agriculture each year for the next five years, but there's not enough grads to fill them. Read More
Radish cover crop
StewardshipCover Crops Guide Helps Growers Improve Water Quality
November 23, 2015
A publication that teaches growers the advantages of using cover crops to improve soil health and crop yields has won Read More
Crop InputsThe Andersons’ Products Receive California Organi…
November 23, 2015
The Plant Nutrient Group of The Andersons, Inc. announced today that its Humic DG and Black Gypsum DG products are Read More
Eric SfiligojNew European Study Seems To Support Glyphosate Safety
November 23, 2015
Looking at any international news over the past few years, it might seem as if the European Union (EU) is Read More
Toggle Biostimulant corn roots
Crop InputsTwo New Biostimulants Added To United Suppliers’ …
November 20, 2015
Winfield US announces the launch of two new products in the United Suppliers portfolio for the 2016 crop season, Optify Read More
StewardshipNRDC Report: Cover Crops Contain Vast Benefits
November 19, 2015
As harvest season ends and farmers in the United States ready themselves for winter, one small change could make a Read More
Fall Harvest
Seed/BiotechArysta Launches New Seed Protectant
November 19, 2015
As spring wheat growers begin planning for a strong start to their season, Arysta LifeScience North America announces RANCONA V Read More
Crop InputsInocucor Receives U.S. Patent For Microbials
November 19, 2015
Inocucor Technologies Inc., the Montreal-based agriculture biotech company, was issued patent No. 9,175,258 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect Read More
ManagementSyngenta Rumors and ARA 2015 Preview
November 19, 2015
CropLife Editor Eric Sfiligoj looks at the latest rumors involving Syngenta selling its crop protection business and talks about events Read More
EquipmentAGCO Announces Finalists For Operator Of The Year Honor
November 19, 2015
AGCO Corp. has announced the four top operators chosen as finalists for AGCO’s 10th Annual Operator of the Year program, Read More
High Plains Aquifer
StewardshipStudy: High Plains Aquifer Overall Usage In Decline
November 18, 2015
A new Kansas State University study finds that the over-tapping of the High Plains Aquifer’s groundwater beyond the aquifer’s recharge Read More
Golden Harvest Corn healthy leaves
FungicidesArysta Launches New Corn And Soybean Fungicide
November 17, 2015
Arysta LifeScience North America has recently launched ZOLERA FX Fungicide. The highly systemic, powerful fungicide delivers broad-spectrum disease control with Read More
Young corn plants in soil
Crop InputsBioAg Alliance: Microbials Targeted For 250-500 million…
November 17, 2015
Monsanto and Novozymes have announced a new 2025 acreage target that will guide the companies’ microbials business for the next Read More
Syngenta Sign
Crop InputsSyngenta Still Being Eyed For China Takeover
November 16, 2015
China National Chemical Corp. approached sovereign wealth funds including China Investment Corp. to help pay for a potential acquisition of Read More
Cedar Country Cooperative
Eric SfiligojCooperative Consolidation Continues
November 16, 2015
As I put this enewsletter column together, we’ve just put the finishing touches on our magazine’s annual CropLife 100 report. Read More