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NUTRIENT USE EFFICIENCY: USING NUTRIENT BUDGETS

Robert Mikkelsen Potash & Phosphate Institute

ABSTRACT The use of nutrient budgets has become increasingly popular in recent years. Three types of budgets are described with examples: Soil Surface Balance, Farm Gate Balance, and Soil System Balance. Nutrient budgets are sometimes used to get an estimate of nutrient use efficiency. This “efficiency” term can be defined in many ways and is subject to misinterpretation. Nutrient efficiency can be defined in agronomic, economic, or environmental terms with widely varying results. It is not always advisable to achieve the highest efficiency possible. INTRODUCTION There are very few “ideal” soils in the world- that is, soils that contain all of the essential nutrients in the proper balance required by crops. Overcoming these pre-existing deficiencies is the goal of the fertilizer industry. While animal manures are excellent at providing many of the essential nutrients for crops, their composition is rarely in balance with what the soil requires to adequately supply the plant’s needs. Similarly, legume cover crops are good as a N source for subsequent crops, but provide no other additional nutrients that were not already in the soil. It is in everyone’s best interest to utilize nutrients as efficiently as possible. However, accomplishing this goal- or even defining it- is difficult to achieve. In general, getting as much of a nutrient as possible into the harvested portion of a crop is the concept of efficient nutrient use. Tracking the recovery of applied nutrients is a key component to measuring nutrient efficiency. NUTRIENT BUDGETS The generally accepted approach to nutrient balance measures the difference between nutrient inputs and outputs in an agricultural system. Nutrient or mineral balances establish a link between agricultural nutrient use, changes in environmental quality, and the sustainable use of soil nutrient resources. Depending on the data input, these budgets can be used at a variety of scales. Nutrient budgets are becoming increasingly common as a tool to describe nutrient flows within farming systems and to assist in the planning of the complex spatial and temporal management within rotational cropping and mixed farming systems. Budgets are the outcome of a nutrient accounting process, ranging from simple to complex, which details all the inputs and outputs to a given system over a fixed period of time. The underlying assumption of a nutrient budget is that of mass balance (i.e. nutrient inputs to the system minus any nutrient exports equal the change in storage within the system (Meisinger and Randall, 1991). Many approaches have been used to estimate nutrient balances, depending on the intended use. For example, the technique for developing national, regional, or global estimates of efficiency may be much different from a field-scale or micro-plot approach. Additionally, a nutrient deficit or surplus over the short term does is not immediately indicative of undesirable consequences, but in fact may be beneficial and desirable for building overall soil fertility.

Western Nutrient Management Conference. 2005. Vol. 6. Salt Lake City, UT.

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Farm Gate Balance: This type of balance simply measures the difference between the nutrient content of farm inputs and the nutrient content of farm outputs. and water. Salt Lake City. and crops leaving the farm.all of which have various limitations depending on the level of measurement and the availability of data. UT.664 lb P/yr) and exports (13. 6. An example: “Sheldrick et al (2002) conducted a nutrient balance for 197 countries using the soil surface balance technique. An example: Nelson and Mikkelsen (2005) constructed a P budget for a typical swine farm in North Carolina to examine the potential nutrient accumulation patterns and make predictions of future trends. The difference between imports (30. This method quantifies nutrients supplied to and removed from the farm. The world average soil depletion of nutrients was estimated to be 10 lb N/A. The usefulness and reliability of any type of budget depends on its completeness. 40% for P. Working at a national level allowed them to use the FAO data base. They reported that nutrient efficiency is approximately 50% for N.030 lb P/yr on this particular farm (Figure 2). The three main approaches are: Soil Surface Balance: This approach measures the difference between the inputs (or the application) of nutrients and the output (or removal of nutrients) from the soil (Figure 1). etc. which contains detailed information related to crop and livestock production.g. and 75% for K. However. and Rep. This type of analysis can be used for making farm-level nutrient management plans and regional estimates of nutrient use.633 lb P/yr) indicates an average accumulation of 17. and 21 lb K2O/A. but it ignores many of the complex on-farm transformations that N is subject to (e. While this budget provides the most detail for nutrient management planning. This balance has been successfully used for P and K. This type of budget is easy to construct and requires relatively little data. Vol. They concluded that the current depletion of K is particularly severe and could ultimately lead to a serious loss of crop production in several countries. but does not quantify the nutrients circulating within the farm enterprise.Several basic techniques are used to measure nutrient balances. denitrification. Page 3 .). soil. animal mortalities. volatile losses during crop senescence. of Korea) there is a surplus of these primary nutrients. in almost all other countries. as well as fertilizer consumption statistics. 9 lb P2O5/A. Western Nutrient Management Conference. food production is currently depending on depleting large quantities of nutrients from soil reserves and this unsustainable trend is likely to continue into the future. In a few countries (Western Europe. it is consequently used widely for policy analysis. there is usually uncertainty associated with the data inputs and the partitioning of the components of the nutrient balance between air. Japan. 2005. NH3 volatilization. They subtracted the P in the mature hogs. They measured the nutrient content of all feed and piglets entering the farm.

Another example of a farm gate-type budget applied on a state scale was recently conducted to examine average nutrient balances (PPI. This budget was based on crop production statistics. Example of a soil surface balance showing various inputs and outputs from a farm. Vol. or country. 2005.749 lb P/yr Figure 2. ______________________________________________________________________________________ Imported Swine: 2545 lb P/yr Exported Swine and Crops:13. The contribution of legumes to the overall nutrient budget is an important N input in many states. legume-derived N is included as both an N source and a harvested removal. Salt Lake City. It is important to remember that these state-wide budgets reflect average conditions and should not be used to make specific nutrient recommendations. 2005). However. 6. region. The degree of soil K depletion reflects how the removal of K in harvested crops greatly exceeds its replacement through fertilizer or manure.633 lb P/yr Inputs → → Outputs Remaining on Farm: 17. Phosphorus removal in harvested crops is generally less than that applied with fertilizer and manure.Inorganic Fertilizer Animal Manure Nitrogen Fixation Aerial Deposition Organic Fertilizer Seeds Agricultural Land Nutrient Balance Surplus or Deficit into: Air Soil Water Harvested Crops Grass & Forage Figure 1. For simplicity.030 lb P/yr Imported Feed: 27. 2002). UT. recoverable animal manure. and fertilizer consumption (Figure 3). Page 4 . Example of farm gate phosphorus budget for a typical swine farm in North Carolina (Nelson and Mikkelsen. this result masks the areas in proximity to animal production facilities that Western Nutrient Management Conference. average nutrient content of harvest crops.

200 202% Removal Manure Legume Fertilizer Page 5 .500 82% N Removal Million lb Million lb K Removal 300 150 0 N N N 900 600 300 0 N Removal 131% P Removal 62% P Removal P P2O5 P KK2O K NN N PP2O5 P K K2O K Idaho: Nutrient Inputs and Removal 700 600 81% N Removal Million lb 431% Removal Manure Legume Fertilizer K Removal 500 400 300 200 100 0 N N N 87% P Removal P P2O5 P K K2O K Figure 3.and areas further from animal facilities that frequently receive inadequate additions of fertilizer P to maintain appropriate soil fertility levels. Western Nutrient Management Conference. 2005. Washington: Nutrient Inputs and Removal 600 450 California: Nutrient Inputs and Removal 1. This type of balance requires much larger data inputs than the previous approaches. Soil System Balance: This approach is commonly used where detailed information on inputs. 6.g. The use of isotopes (e. The commonly used models operate at different scales (from global to micro-plot scale) and this scale issue must be considered when choosing the most appropriate model for a specific nutrient balance. A number of excellent mechanistic models have been developed to trace the fate of nutrients.frequently receive more P than is agronomically required. 2002). outputs. Vol. UT. K Removal 265% 58% Removal Manure Legume Fertilizer 1. and internal transformations is available for all the important components. 15N) to trace the behavior of applied fertilizer has also been very useful in understanding the complex physical/chemical/and microbial transformations that occur after nutrients are added to soil. Salt Lake City. but the use of relevant computer models can help with parameter estimates when field observations are not available. and Idaho based on a farmgate nutrient budget of inputs and outputs (PPI. Example of nutrient balances in Washington. California.800 1.

efficiency is frequently defined as the nutrient accumulated in the aboveground part of the plant. UT. For N. this value frequently varies between 40 and 60%. and even higher for P and K additions. This measure of Western Nutrient Management Conference. and the potential for nitrate leaching is enhanced. Page 6 .compared with the situation where balanced and appropriate nutrition is provided. Nominal nutrient efficiency may be very high under these circumstances. While efficiency may be very high in this condition.Figure 4. and their loss mechanisms are each unique.Area 1). Bock (1984) provides a good overview of difficulties associated with achieving high economic efficiency. This can be complex to predict when factors such as future yield responses. or environmental perspectives. Economic efficiency occurs when farm income is maximized as a result of nutrient inputs. It is a fallacy that the highest possible nutrient efficiencies should be the ultimate goal of fertilizer users. For N. 2005. water use efficiency is suboptimal. In this condition. 1996). NUTRIENT USE EFFICIENCY Efficient use of nutrients in agriculture may be defined differently when viewed from agronomic. the cost of nutrient inputs. The susceptibility of loss varies among the essential plant nutrients. Proper definition for the intended use is essential to understand published values and have meaningful discussion. Another common definition of efficiency is the nutrient recovered within the entire soil-crop-root system. Salt Lake City. but it is clearly a non-sustainable scenario. and crop prices may not be known in advance of the growing season. 6. All agro-ecosystems cause a disruption of native nutrient cycles – an inevitable consequence of all modern food production systems. Example of inputs required for a soil system balance based on mechanistic nutrient transformations (Brown and Johnson. Another example of inadequate understanding of “efficiency” is when an insufficient quantity of nutrients is regularly added to meet crop needs. (Figure 5. Vol. this value may be in the range of 65 to 85%. crop growth in this region is generally stunted. The highest “efficiency” occurs when small amounts of nutrients are applied on deficient soils. For example. Environmental nutrient efficiency is important since nutrients not used by the crop are at potential risk for loss. profitability is low. soil productivity will gradually decline as crop production continues to be increasingly reliant on nutrient stocks from soil reserves. economic.

and G. and J.) Nitrogen in the environment. Runoff phosphorus losses as related to phosphorus source.B. Estimating nitrogen budgets for soil-crop systems. p. application method and application rate on a Piedmont soil. and R. It is time to move beyond the concept of managing single nutrients. Meisinger. WI. F. REFERENCES Bock. Environ. In D. Brown. Lingard. % Area 4 75 50 25 0 0 0. Academic Press. leaching. Potash & Phosphate Institute. J. Mikkelsen. Fact Sheet AEX-463-96. and global scales. L.K. Tarkalson. ASA. Columbus. OH. 100 Yield Potential.D. J.C.5 1 1. and A. 33:1424-1430. UT.L. Ext. Educ.D. Plant nutrient use in North America. 6. 273-294. 2002. Nielsen (ed. 1979.). (in press). Syers. 1978. Hauck et al (ed. 2002. 62:61-72. J. p.. W. Phosphorus: Tarkalson and Mikkelsen. Madison. Sheldrick. and runoff potential all need to be assessed to determine the level of acceptable loss and environmental efficiency. Western Nutrient Management Conference. ASA. The local conditions. Balancing the phosphorus budget of a swine farm: A case study.. 85–124. J. Johnson.5 Increased nutrient additions Area 3 Area 2 Area 1 Figure 5. such as rainfall.. and R. CSSA. Madison. 2004. 1996. Considerable research has shown that nutrient loss is greatly enhanced when fertilizers or manures are added at rates beyond their agronomic need (e. Field trials with isotopically labeled nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen: Broadbent and Carlton. Vol. resulting in decreasing efficiency as yields and economic sustainability increase beyond their optimum level.L. The concept of plant nutrient efficiency is certainly not a new one. A conceptual model for conducting nutrient audits at national. but instead consider providing balanced crop nutrition for producing foods of high nutritional quality with sustainable economic and environmental yield levels. Nitrogen and the hydrologic cycle. In R. Norcross.E. Carlton. Tech Bull. CSSA.O.F. Randall.environmental efficiency must be made on a case-by-case basis by looking at the local environmental sensitivity and the vulnerable targets for nutrient impacts. 2005. In R. 2004). and SSSA. Follett et al. 1984. 1-41. denitrification. regional.W. (ed.but it is still not adequately understood and practiced.5 2 2.R. N. 2005. Salt Lake City.W. Efficient use of nitrogen in cropping systems. GA. Nitrogen in crop production. WI. D. B.. Mikkelsen. Natural Resources and Life Sci. Crop yields respond favorably to nutrient additions.g.J.) Managing nitrogen for groundwater quality and farm profitability. and SSSA. 1991. p. Ohio State Univ. and J. Page 7 .. Nelson. 2002-1.F. frozen snow.R. Broadbent. Nutrient Cycling Agroecosystems. Qual.