What’s Ahead For Fertilizer

What’s ahead for fertilizer use considering what we see in the rearview mirror and the issues on the horizon? While it’s hard to say for certain, there are many factors at play that can give some insight.

Nutrient Budgets

Potassium (K) and phosphorus (P) application took big hits last year and will contribute to some very negative nutrient budgets (quantity applied minus quantity removed by crops) for key North American production areas. This red ink comes on top of rather precarious pre-existing nutrient budgets for the primary Corn Belt (see map). If we include recoverable manure nutrients, the eastern Corn Belt was applying about 10% more K than was being removed while the western Corn Belt was removing about 10% to 20% more than was being applied. Prior to the 2009 season, much of the Corn Belt was running a P deficit with crop removal in Iowa exceeding use by 20% to 30% and in Illinois by 50% to 60%. These were the budgets existing prior to the recent use reductions; the deficits will be much greater in 2009.

Conventional wisdom would lead us to at least two sets of agronomic impacts.

First, if fields experiencing significant use reduction were below critical soil test levels for these nutrients (roughly 40% of North American fields), some reductions in 2009 crop yields would be expected. The amount of this yield loss will be hard to determine this autumn due to the large impact weather always has on actual yields. However, the weather-induced delays in planting and the coolness of the season across much of the Midwest and northern Great Plains are conditions that typically translate into larger than normal nutrient responses — if the nutrients were applied. Date of crop maturity and grain moisture contents are likely also to be impacted by nutrient management, and these impacts are sure to be important to many regions. Then, there are the soil compaction issues created by traffic on wet soils this spring that often result in greater responses to application of K.

Looking forward, 2009 will stack up to be a year of significant mining of soil nutrients — on top of the nutrient budget scenario described earlier. We expect the result to be a reduction in soil P and K fertility levels. Aggregate data are not very useful in judging the impact of such reductions as the impact depends on the soil fertility levels you started with. So a premium exists this fall on knowing field or zone-specific soil fertility levels in order to determine adjustments in future fertilizer use. It is highly likely that the average soil test based P or K fertilizer recommendation will be higher next year than it was last year.

Beyond The Farm Gate

Leadership changes within elected government and agencies like EPA, and public statements made by those in authority, indicate that agriculture could be facing many new environmental hurdles. National science review committees have been or are developing reports that call for significant reductions (20% to 45%) in the release of nitrogen (N) and P into the environment. In years past, point source pollution (from identifiable pipes, smokestacks, etc.) was the largest target and focus of attention.

Today, nonpoint sources or diffuse losses of nutrients to the environment are considered the new regulatory and environmental policy “frontier.” As a consequence of these changes, few doubt that federal, state, and local authorities will be asking or requiring the agricultural community to ratchet down the loss of nutrients from our landscapes to fulfill their duties to protect our air and water resources.

Hypoxia

Midwest farmers are keenly aware that hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico has been largely blamed on N and P loss from agricultural lands. Spring (April-June) transport of N and P is believed to be one of the principal factors which fuel hypoxia development. In January 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) identified N and P losses from farmland in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi as the cause of over 70% of the hypoxic zone pollution.

In June, USGS reported that river flow this past spring (April-May) was up 17%, nitrite plus nitrate-N flux or discharge to the Gulf of Mexico was up 11%, and total N flux was up 5.5%, compared to the 1979 to 2008 averages. As a consequence of these increases, the predictive models used by some marine scientists were forecasting a record hypoxic zone size (8,456 square miles to 9,668 square miles) this summer. Somewhat surprisingly, the anticipated calamity did not happen and the hypoxic zone was much smaller than predicted (3,000 square miles; see figure below). Some are attributing the reduced size of the hypoxic zone this year to reduced fertilizer use by growers throughout the Mississippi River Basin. However, the supposition that less fertilizer use this year resulted in a smaller hypoxic zone does not jibe with the observed increase in spring transport of nitrite plus nitrate-N and total N to the Gulf, which were reported by USGS. Clearly, there are other factors which also influence hypoxia development.

Greenhouse Gas Challenges

Who among us has not heard about climate change and the influence of potent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on global warming? To curb the trend in global warming and climate change, reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have been placed foremost among our society’s environmental goals now and into the future. Reductions in nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions are also being called for because N2O has a global warming potential about 300 times higher than CO2. Agricultural soil management, which includes inputs such as fertilizer and manure N, accounts for most of the world’s N2O emissions. Anything that can be done to improve crop recovery of applied N will likely result in significant reductions in N2O emissions, and help reduce other N losses that pose problems in the environment. When nitrate is abundant in the soil, creating a supply of readily available carbon (C) (i.e., adequate soil organic matter) and warm, moist soil conditions exist (i.e. at and above field capacity), there is a significant risk of N2O emissions.

However, well-managed fertilizer promotes plant growth and photosynthesis, during which CO2 is captured from the air. Increased plant biomass (both below and aboveground) helps sequestration of C in the soil, as soil organic matter, and therefore helps minimize atmospheric emissions of CO2 associated with land use and food production. Conservation practices like no-till and other management changes can help reduce soil disturbance, reduce the rate of soil organic matter decomposition, and help reduce CO2 emissions. When C is sequestered in soil organic matter, N as well as P and sulfur are also sequestered because these four nutrients are all essential components in soil organic matter. If crop production per existing land area can be increased, and the biomass production can also be increased, then many would suggest that crop agriculture can have a positive impact in helping lower GHG emissions and reducing the risks of global warming.

More Food, Fuel

The global food crisis has not gone away, it just left our headlines. The facts are that global cereal yields are currently increasing at a rate of 1.2% to 1.3% per year, based on 2007 yields, and food demand for decades to come is expected to increase at a rate in the vicinity of 2% per year. That gives a pretty clear picture of the importance of increasing productivity.

Use Our Tools

If there was ever a time for full throttle application of 4R nutrient stewardship, it’s now. Application of the right nutrient source, at the right rate, the right time, and the right place is the way forward. This simple concept brings together the science and practical application of nutrient management in a way that supports the economic, environmental, and social elements of sustainable crop production. The resulting site-specific nutrient best management practices become the in-field manifestation of the approach and the only rational means of attempting to meet the productivity, economic, and environmental demands mentioned above. All the science may not yet be done to fully address these issues, but much has been and is ready for more complete adoption. Implementing 4R nutrient stewardship and documenting the implementation are critical roles for agriculture and the fertilizer industry as we collectively address the issues of 2010 and beyond.

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

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
LegislationUSDA Implements Key Farm Bill Crop Insurance Provision
July 30, 2014
The new Supplemental Coverage Option, available through the federal crop insurance program and set to begin with the 2015 crop year, is designed to help protect producers from yield and market volatility. Read More

Latest News

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
EquipmentDeere Announces Factory Layoffs
August 18, 2014
Deere & Co. has announced it will reduce the size of its manufacturing workforce at some agricultural equipment factories in response to current market demand for its products. Read More
HerbicidesNew DuPont Afforia Herbicide Gives Crops A Clean Start
August 18, 2014
DuPont Afforia is a preplant herbicide for soybeans and other field crops that provides excellent burndown and residual control of many challenging weeds, such as marestail and waterhemp. Read More
Equipment21 Products Showcased At MAGIE 2014
August 18, 2014
The annual Midwest AG Industries Exposition is upon us. Here is CropLife IRON's look at some of the products visitors can expect to see at this week's event. Read More
EquipmentAGCO Seeks Nominations For 2014 Operator Of The Year
August 15, 2014
Ag retailers throughout the U.S. and Canada are encouraged to nominate their best applicators. 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
ManagementCropLife’s Buyers’ Guide Issue Now Availabl…
August 13, 2014
One of our most read issues of the year — the August Buyers' Guide — is ready to download on the iPad. This popular issue features equipment for "In The Field," "At The Plant" and "In The Office." Read More
WebinarsWebinars On Demand
August 13, 2014
Register for one of our upcoming Webinars or access our archive of past Webinars to view recordings of presentations that may be of interest to you. Read More
HerbicidesBASF: Fall Burndown Benefits Go Beyond Weed Control
August 12, 2014
While unpredictable weather may delay application timing of spring herbicides, more growers are adding a burndown application in the fall Read More
HerbicidesScouting Key To Next Season’s Soybean Herbicide P…
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
StewardshipNitrogen Efficiency Supports Environmental Stewardship
August 12, 2014
As growers prepare for another harvest, it’s important to consider how nitrogen stabilization not only supports healthy plant growth but also fosters environmental stewardship. Read More
Seed/BiotechMycogen Seeds Introduces 19 New Corn Hybrids For 2015
August 12, 2014
Many of the new hybrids feature Mycogen's SmartStax Refuge Advanced technology for maximum protection of the genetic potential and planting convenience. Read More
HerbicidesDow AgroSciences Introduces Enlist Ahead App For Enlist…
August 12, 2014
Designed for use with the Enlist Weed Control System, the app is a precision agriculture tool for maximizing weed control performance, managing weed resistance and making responsible applications of Enlist Duo herbicide with Colex-D Technology. Read More
CropLife 100CHS Announces Senior Leadership Team Changes
August 12, 2014
Current CHS strategic leadership team member Shirley Cunningham will assume a new role as executive vice president and chief operating officer, Ag Business and Enterprise Strategy. Read More
ManagementFormulation Chemist Enhances Capabilities For AgriThori…
August 11, 2014
AgriThority has added accomplished formulation chemist Roy Chen to its team of associates supporting new and emerging biotechnologies and conventional chemistries. Read More