Using spatially variable nitrogen application and crop responses to evaluate crop nitrogen use efficiency

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Springer Science and Business Media LLC


Low nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) is ubiquitous in agricultural systems, with mounting global scale consequences for both atmospheric aspects of climate and downstream ecosystems. Since NUE-related soil characteristics such as water holding capacity and organic matter are likely to vary at small scales (< 1 ha), understanding the influence of soil characteristics on NUE at the subfield scale (< 32 ha) could increase fertilizer NUE. Here, we quantify NUE in four conventionally managed dryland winter-wheat fields in Montana following multiple years of sub-field scale variation in experimental N fertilizer applications. To inform farmer decisions that incorporates NUE, we developed a generalizable model to predict subfield scale NUE by comparing six candidate models, using ecological and biogeochemical data gathered from open-source data repositories and from normal farm operations, including yield and protein monitoring data. While NUE varied across fields and years, efficiency was highest in areas of fields with low N availability from both fertilizer and estimated mineralization of soil organic N (SON). At low levels of applied N, distinct responses among fields suggest distinct capacities to supply non-fertilizer plant-available N, suggesting that mineralization supplies more available N in locations with higher total N, reducing efficiency for any applied rate. Comparing modelling approaches, a random forest regression model of NUE provided predictions with the least error relative to observed NUE. Subfield scale predictive models of NUE can help to optimize efficiency in agronomic systems, maximizing both economic net return and NUE, which provides a valuable approach for optimization of nitrogen fertilizer use.



nitrogen, crop response, crop nitrogen


Hegedus, P.B., Ewing, S.A., Jones, C. et al. Using spatially variable nitrogen application and crop responses to evaluate crop nitrogen use efficiency. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 126, 1–20 (2023).
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