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

Aerial view of the West Fertilizer explosion site
FertilizerFertilizer Companies Blame City For West, TX, Explosion
August 6, 2014
El Dorado Chemical Co. and CF Industries contend the city failed to properly train the first responders and had insufficient protocols in place to battle the April 17, 2013, blaze at West Fertilizer Co. that triggered the explosion. Read More
FertilizerThe Fertilizer Institute: New President, Renewed Energy
February 3, 2014
Chris Jahn relishes the opportunity to lead the organization through the challenging times ahead. Read More
FertilizerA New Cycle For Fertilizer Demand
January 2, 2014
Changes in the corn market could have a major impact on the crop nutrients sector in 2014, say experts. Read More
FertilizerOSHA Hammers West Fertilizer With Over $100K In Fines For April Explosion
October 10, 2013
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is fining the parent company of the West Fertilizer plant, Adair Grain Inc., $118,300 for 24 violations. Read More

Trending Articles

ManagementExpert To Discuss Farmland Value, Rent At Farm Science Review
August 18, 2014
While cropland values in Ohio increased in the past two years, they have remained flat in 2014, declining in some cases, according to an Ohio State University agricultural economist. Read More
EquipmentAdvance Your Technology IQ At MAGIE
August 13, 2014
The Midwest AG Industries Exposition (August 20-21) is the place you need to be to see, study and evaluate how new advances in the equipment, operations, crop protection and fertility sectors can help your business prosper. Read More
HerbicidesScouting Key To Next Season’s Soybean Herbicide Program
August 12, 2014
When growing soybeans, growers need to think ahead to stay one step ahead of weeds. That means examining weed threats and evaluating which herbicides work best. Read More
StewardshipMichigan Agriculture Leaders On Toledo Water Ban: We Want To Be Part Of The Conversation
August 8, 2014
Leaders of Michigan agricultural organizations said Thursday that the government should not have a “knee-jerk reaction” based on last weekend’s water ban in Toledo due to fertilizer run-off in Lake Erie. Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT Acquires Lemon Ag Services
August 4, 2014
The acquisition of Lemon Ag fits BRANDT’s aggressive corporate strategy of providing superior agronomic advice and services for customers in central Illinois. Read More
Eric SfiligojThe Resurgence Of Crop Protection
August 4, 2014
Plenty of new offerings over the next few years should see a rebirth for the crop protection products category in terms of market share. Read More

Latest News

CropLife 100Pinnacle Acquires California-Based Retailer
August 29, 2014
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings will acquire Kerman Ag Resources, Inc., which will operate under Pinnacle's Performance Agriculture brand. Read More
Allied Cooperative Grain Plant
ManagementArcadia Co-op To Merge With Allied Cooperative
August 28, 2014
Allied Cooperative has announced that members of Arcadia Co-op voted in favor of a merger with Allied Cooperative, paving the way for the consolidation which will be effective on December 1, 2014. Read More
InsecticidesBioinsecticide VENERATE Now Registered In California
August 27, 2014
Marrone Bio Innovations' VENERATE is a new tool to help California growers control crop-damaging insect pests, fight the development of insect resistance and reduce pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. Read More
CropLife 100Two Iowa-Based Ag Co-ops To Merge
August 27, 2014
The Board of Directors and management of United Western Coop, Missouri Valley, IA has completed a merger with Heartland Co-op, West Des Moines, IA, effective September 1, 2014. Read More
FertilizerKoch Expands AGROTAIN Nitrogen Stabilizer Portfolio
August 26, 2014
Koch Agronomic Services, LLC has added two new innovative nitrogen stabilizers to the AGROTAIN product family – AGROTAIN ADVANCED and AGROTAIN DRI-­MAXX. Read More
Seed/BiotechDuPont To Build Two Seed Treatment Centers
August 26, 2014
DuPont has announced construction on two state-of-the-art centers dedicated to developing and testing seed treatment formulations, applications and seed handling techniques in an important step toward bringing new solutions to growers. Read More
Seed/BiotechLoveland Products Acquires A Controlling Interest In Ag…
August 26, 2014
Loveland Products, a subsidiary of Agrium , has announced the company has acquired a controlling interest in Agricen, a Dallas-area agricultural biotechnology company delivering biochemical-based products for efficient and sustainable plant nutrition. Read More
StewardshipUp Close Look At The 2014 Environmental Respect Award W…
August 25, 2014
The 2014 Environmental Respect Award winners were honored recently at the 24th annual event in Wilmington, DE. Read More
Eric SfiligojAg Science Rejection Carries Consequences
August 25, 2014
As innuendo and fear dog the regulatory process, agriculture can’t get the new tools it needs to combat world hunger. Read More
LegislationFarmers Dismayed As New Farm Bill Dumps Direct Payments
August 25, 2014
The threatened end of cash subsidies to the nation’s row crop farmers dates back through at least the last two iterations of national agriculture policy legislation. Read More
MAGIE 2014 ShowStopper
EquipmentJohn Deere Again Wins MAGIE ShowStopper Award
August 25, 2014
For the second consecutive year, John Deere was honored at the Midwest AG Industries Exposition (MAGIE) for its new R4045 sprayer. Read More
CropLife 100GROWMARK CEO To Retire
August 22, 2014
GROWMARK chief executive officer Jeff Solberg has announced his retirement effective September 15, 2014. Read More
InsecticidesDuPont’s Prevathon Approved For Dry Beans
August 22, 2014
DuPont Prevathon insect control powered by Rynaxypyr has received EPA registration for foliar use on dry bean crops, including dried shelled peas and beans. Read More
ManagementNCGA DuPont New Leaders Program Enters Sophmore Season
August 20, 2014
The National Corn Growers Association and DuPont are pleased to announce the second year of the NCGA DuPont New Leaders Program. Read More
FungicidesVerdesian Links Up With Mitsui, Hokusan
August 20, 2014
Mitsui Chemicals Agro, Inc., and Hokusan Co., announced the signing of an exclusive licensing agreement allowing Verdesian Life Sciences global access to its patented technology for suppressing mycotoxin contamination in wheat and barley. Read More
SprayersUniversity Of Illinois Introduces New Spray App
August 18, 2014
University of Illinois Extension has released a new smartphone app for making sprayer-related calculations. Pesticide Spray Calculator, or Spray Calc, Read More
Crop InputsSyngenta Names New Manager Of Federal Government Relati…
August 18, 2014
Laura Wood Peterson has joined Syngenta as manager of federal government relations, based in Washington, DC. Read More
ManagementExpert To Discuss Farmland Value, Rent At Farm Science …
August 18, 2014
While cropland values in Ohio increased in the past two years, they have remained flat in 2014, declining in some cases, according to an Ohio State University agricultural economist. Read More