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

Nutrients for Life Foundation Teacher
FertilizerNutrients For Life Foundation Celebrates 10 Years Teaching Fertilizer Education
March 23, 2017
Those in agriculture know fertilizer is a vital ingredient to grow strong, productive crops. In fact, fertilizer is responsible for Read More
Growing corn
Crop InputsLock Down Nitrogen For 2017 Profits
March 5, 2017
Managing nutrient programs to snuff out the three types of nitrogen loss — leaching, volatilization, and denitrification — is crucial Read More
Fertilizer Storage
Crop InputsThe State Of The Fertilizer Industry
February 9, 2017
He’s all hat, no horse.” It’s a humorous way of describing a person who tells a good story, but is Read More
CF Industries Port Neal, IA plant
Crop InputsNitrogen Outlook 2017
February 3, 2017
It’s no secret that the global supply of nitrogen has been increasing significantly in recent years, helping drive down prices Read More
Trending Articles
AdjuvantsA New Weed-Control Era Begins: But First, One Last Obstacle
March 4, 2017
There is trepidation, there is reluctance, and there is excitement. Ag retailers feel it all about the new dicamba and Read More
LIFT Academy video screenshot
Crop InputsLIFT Agriculture Academy: A Q&A With West Central Distribution’s Dean Hendrickson
March 1, 2017
West Central Distribution recently launched its LIFT Agriculture Academy, a new, premiere training and professional development resource for West Central’s ag Read More
Farmer and aptop
Matt Hopkins10 Warning Signs Your Website Is Grossly Outdated
February 8, 2017
Your Website is often a visitor’s first impression of your ag retail business. A positive first impression can set the Read More
AgriSync
Matt Hopkins17 Agriculture Apps That Will Help You Farm Smarter In 2017
December 9, 2016
Ag professionals are working smarter, not harder, than ever before. Smart farming technologies have enabled them to reduce costs, maximize Read More
R4023 Sprayer, John Deere
CropLife 100Ag Retail Equipment Report: The Green Party Continues
December 7, 2016
In the annual race for sales in the ag retail equipment marketplace, the color schemes for participants are a little Read More
Mike Stern
Precision AgClimate Corp. CEO Talks Retailer Support For Digital Ag
December 1, 2016
CropLife Magazine’s sister publication, AgriBusiness Global, recently sat down with Mike Stern, CEO of The Climate Corp., following the Monsanto subsidiary’s Read More
Latest News
UncategorizedPrecision Ag, Iowa Water, and GM Corn Updates
March 24, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj look at the state of precision agriculture, the dismissal of the Des Moines Water Read More
Pam Marrone
Crop InputsMarrone Bio Innovations Enters Biostimulants Market Wit…
March 23, 2017
Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. is expanding beyond biopesticides and crop protection and into the biostimulant market by commercially launching Haven Read More
Nutrients for Life Foundation Teacher
FertilizerNutrients For Life Foundation Celebrates 10 Years Teach…
March 23, 2017
Those in agriculture know fertilizer is a vital ingredient to grow strong, productive crops. In fact, fertilizer is responsible for Read More
ManagementThink You Know Water? Take WinField United’s R…
March 22, 2017
Water is among our most precious resources, and arguably the hardest working, with just one percent available for human use, Read More
Corn Field
LegislationTFI Hopes Court Dismissal Is ‘Final Chapter’…
March 20, 2017
The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) released the following statement from President, Chris Jahn on the March 17, 2017, federal court dismissal Read More
Wheat Growers
Industry NewsWheat Growers CEO Dale Locken To Retire
March 20, 2017
CEO Dale Locken has announced that he plans to retire from Wheat Growers. Locken has served almost 15 years as Read More
Bayer Monsanto
Eric SfiligojBayer-Monsanto: Life, LibertyLink, And The Pursuit Of R…
March 20, 2017
As the calendar officially turns to spring, life is in full renewal mode. Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and Read More
Corn Field
Crop InputsUltra Yield Micronutrients Acquires Kronos Micronutrien…
March 16, 2017
Ultra Yield Micronutrients, Inc. ”Ultra”, an affiliate of Cameron Chemicals, Inc., is pleased to announce that it has acquired the Read More
ManagementSnowstorms, Asset Sales, and Soybeans Prices
March 16, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss the weather, precision ag, crop protection company mergers, and commodity prices in this Read More
Soybean Field
Seed/BiotechBayer Invests $8.1 million In Soybean Advancement In Th…
March 16, 2017
Growers in Illinois and across the Midwest now have the added benefit of a state-of-the-art soybean research facility, increasing accessibility Read More
CHS
CropLife 100CHS Acquires Western Co-op Transport Association
March 16, 2017
CHS Inc., North America’s leading farmer-owned cooperative and a global energy, grains and foods company, has purchased Western Co-op Transport Read More
Young corn plants in soil
HerbicidesBest Management Practices To Control PPO-Resistant Weed…
March 14, 2017
Weeds resistant to the class of herbicides called protoporphyrinogen oxidase (PPO) inhibitors are spreading at a faster rate than weed Read More
Photo credit: The United Soybean Board/The Soybean Checkoff.
Eric SfiligojFungicide Resistance On The Horizon
March 13, 2017
For many years now, the agricultural market has struggled to keep ahead of an ever-growing number of herbicide-resistant weeds. According Read More
Management2017 Commodity Classic Review
March 10, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss what happened at the recent Commodity Classic in San Antonio. Read More
Farmer using AgriSync
ManagementMajor AgriSync Update Aims To Extend Ag Experts’ Power …
March 10, 2017
AgriSync announced a major update to its leading collaboration and service management tool for professional ag advisors and their farmer Read More
Agrible Pocket Spray Smart App
EquipmentNew Agrible Pocket Spray Smart App Alleviates Spraying …
March 10, 2017
There’s a new app to help farmers decide when to spray their fields. Pocket Spray Smart is a free iOS Read More
BPIA logo
Crop InputsBiological Products Trade Association Changes Name, Exp…
March 9, 2017
The Biological Products Industry Alliance (BPIA), formerly the BioPesticide Industry Alliance, is the new name of the rapidly growing U.S.-based Read More
BBI MagnaSpread Salford BBI
Equipment14 Fertilizer Spreaders For 2017
March 9, 2017
Application equipment manufacturers stressed flexibility and accuracy with this year’s crop of fertilizer spreaders. From AGCO’s TerraGator TG9300B and Case IH’s 810 Read More