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

FertilizerFall Fertility 2014: Forecasting Fertilizer Use
September 7, 2014
Great crops this year have tapped the soil, and fall work is definitely called for, but how challenging will that get? Read More
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

Top 100 Articles

CropLife 100CHS: Driving Momentum To Help Farmer-Owners Grow
December 11, 2014
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading farmer-owned cooperative and a global energy, grains and foods company, must capture new opportunities to Read More
CropLife 100BRANDT, Verdesian Ink Distribution Agreement
December 9, 2014
The agreement grants BRANDT the exclusive right to sell and market Verdesian’s patented Steric chemistry in the Turf and Ornamental and eastern U.S. ag markets under the BRANDT Reaction product line name. Read More
CropLife 100CropLife 100: The Colors Of Custom Application
December 5, 2014
Although many color spray rigs are in the yards of the nation’s top ag retailers, the majority of them still come in only a few shades. Read More
CropLife 100Pinnacle Invests In Meridian Agriculture Distribution
December 4, 2014
Meridian will provide retailers with supplier-branded products and numerous opportunities to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Read More
CropLife 100CropLife 100: Entering A New Seed Era
December 4, 2014
The seed category has been re-vitalized during the past few years, and more good news (and varieties) are headed the industry’s way in 2015. Read More
CropLife 100CropLife 100: The Depressed State Of Fertilizer
December 3, 2014
Following downright giddy growth earlier this decade, fertilizer sales have fallen back down to earth the past two years. Read More

Latest News

Crop InputsNufarm Fills Regulatory VP Position
December 18, 2014
Nufarm announced today that Rob Schwehr has been promoted to the position of Vice President of Innovation & Regulatory Affairs for Nufarm Americas. Read More
Seed/BiotechReport: China Approves Viptera Corn, U.S. Officials Awa…
December 17, 2014
Chinese authorities have informed some agriculture industry officials the government has approved U.S. imports of a type of genetically modified corn developed by Syngenta. Read More
FertilizerMonty’s Plant Food Brings In New Sales Rep
December 16, 2014
Monty's Plant Food Company has hired Warren Kearns as its newest Sales Representative for the South Carolina area. Read More
EquipmentHagie Wins 2014 CropLife IRON Product Of The Year Award
December 15, 2014
The self-propelled sprayer maker has a hit on its hands with the new STS Series model. Read More
Syngenta
Seed/BiotechSyngenta Sees China Approving Contentious GMO Corn Soon
December 15, 2014
Syngenta will make an announcement when it receives official documentation from China that Agrisure Viptera corn, known as MIR 162, has been cleared for import. Read More
Crop InputsVerdesian Life Sciences Names Vice President Of Communi…
December 15, 2014
Amy Bugg will oversee the execution of all promotional strategies for the corporate brand and the complete product portfolio. Read More
StewardshipFarmers, Retailers Attend 4R Certification 4U Workshop
December 15, 2014
More than 160 farmers and ag retailer attended the “4R Certification 4U” workshop December 12 to learn more about the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship, water quality research in the area and cost-sharing opportunities. Read More
Matt Hopkins10 Best New Agriculture Apps For 2015
December 15, 2014
These new agriculture apps are certain to help ag professionals do their jobs more efficiently in 2015 and beyond. Read More
ManagementARA Learnings, Retail Buying Intentions: Welcome To Cro…
December 12, 2014
This informal video program puts news and events effecting retailers into context, and features Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj. Read More
Seed/BiotechMonsanto Herbicide-Tolerant Technology Closer To Commer…
December 12, 2014
The final EIS moves Monsanto one step closer to the introduction of Bollgard II XtendFlex cotton and Roundup Ready 2 Xtend soybeans, paving the way to provide access to dicamba-tolerant soybeans and cotton. Read More
Seed/BiotechUSDA Issues Final Environmental Impact Statement On Her…
December 12, 2014
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is issuing a final environmental impact statement on varieties of cotton and soybeans that have been genetically engineered for resistance to several herbicides, including the one known as dicamba. Read More
CropLife 100CHS: Driving Momentum To Help Farmer-Owners Grow
December 11, 2014
CHS Inc., the nation’s leading farmer-owned cooperative and a global energy, grains and foods company, must capture new opportunities to Read More
LegislationARA Applauds CFATS Passage Prior To Holiday Adjournment
December 11, 2014
The streamlined bill provides a four-year authorization of the CFATS program and guidance to DHS on key issues of chemical facility security Read More
Seed/BiotechBayer CropScience’s ILeVO Approved By EPA
December 11, 2014
EPA has approved ILeVO, the only seed treatment that protects the root system against infections caused by the Sudden Death Syndrome fungus and has activity against dangerous nematodes. Read More
Biologicals in Emerging Markets Map.
Crop InputsBiocontrols Could Quadruple By 2025; Will Regulators Pl…
December 11, 2014
The European experience with GMOs offers caution — and a promise — for biologicals. Read More
Crop InputsBASF Donates $75,000 To Feeding America
December 10, 2014
The donation will support Feeding America’s National Produce Program, an initiative that helps with planning, transportation and logistics to ensure fresh produce deliveries to the 200 member food banks around the country. Read More
InsecticidesHow To Avoid Aphid Infestation In Winter Wheat
December 10, 2014
The best strategy for managing aphid infestations in winter wheat — and the potential yellow dwarf diseases that they transmit — is prevention, according to a South Dakota State University Plant Pathology field specialist. Read More
LegislationDufault Installed As New ARA Chair
December 10, 2014
Dave Dufault, Vice President and General Manager of J.R. Simplot Company's Retail Business, was installed as the 2015 Chairman of the Board for ARA on December 4. Read More