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Environmental and economic benefits of variable rate nitrogen fertilization in a nitrate vulnerable zone

Basso, Bruno, Dumont, Benjamin, Cammarano, Davide, Pezzuolo, Andrea, Marinello, Francesco, Sartori, Luigi
The Science of the total environment 2016 v.545-546 pp. 227-235
crop models, ecosystem services, electrical resistance, fertilizer rates, income, landscape position, landscapes, leaching, nitrates, nitrogen fertilizers, simulation models, soil heterogeneity, sowing, variable rate application, yield mapping, Italy
Agronomic input and management practices have traditionally been applied uniformly on agricultural fields despite the presence of spatial variability of soil properties and landscape position. When spatial variability is ignored, uniform agronomic management can be both economically and environmentally inefficient. The objectives of this study were to: i) identify optimal N fertilizer rates using an integrated spatio-temporal analysis of yield and site-specific N rate response; ii) test the sensitivity of site specific N management to nitrate leaching in response to different N rates; and iii) demonstrate the environmental benefits of variable rate N fertilizer in a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone. This study was carried out on a 13.6ha field near the Venice Lagoon, northeast Italy over four years (2005–2008). We utilized a validated crop simulation model to evaluate crop response to different N rates at specific zones in the field based on localized soil and landscape properties under rainfed conditions. The simulated rates were: 50kgNha−1 applied at sowing for the entire study area and increasing fractions, ranging from 150 to 350kgNha−1 applied at V6 stage. Based on the analysis of yield maps from previous harvests and soil electrical resistivity data, three management zones were defined. Two N rates were applied in each of these zones, one suggested by our simulation analysis and the other with uniform N fertilization as normally applied by the producer. N leaching was lower and net revenue was higher in the zones where variable rates of N were applied when compared to uniform N fertilization. This demonstrates the efficacy of using crop models to determine variable rates of N fertilization within a field and the application of variable rate N fertilizer to achieve higher profit and reduce nitrate leaching.