Refining Nitrogen Rates for Crops

When farmers apply more nitrogen to their fields than the crops can use, the excess nitrogen flows into ground and surface water and jeopardizes water quality, human health, and the aquatic food chain. This is the water that people in towns, cities, and rural areas use for drinking water. In the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal waters, excess nitrate and dissolved organic carbon from agricultural runoff are causing hypoxia, or oxygen deficiency. Excess nitrogen also contributes to leaching of dissolved organic carbon from agricultural soils. This carbon reacts during water purification treatment and forms by-products that are a human health threat. In addition, the carbon that escapes the soil may be contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming. While the environmental and human health threats are clear, surveys indicate that farmers are reluctant to adopt improved nitrogen management practices because they fear these practices will lower their yields and incomes. To develop best management practices that will minimize losses and reduce the amount of nitrogen, carbon, and other contaminates that run off into ground and surface water, we need to better understand how carbon and nitrogen work in cropping systems. Better quantification of nitrogen mineralization will let us make more accurate recommendations to optimize crop production and reduce impacts on water quality. We need to develop research and educational programs and materials to demonstrate the agricultural, economic, and environmental effects of various nitrogen management practices to producers and agriculture professionals. This information should help producers make research-based decisions about adopting improved practices.

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