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Improving Fertilizer Use Efficiency Requires a Systems Approach

Blog Post by Professor Bruno Basso, Scientific Co-Founder at CiBO Technologies; Dr. Jennette Ashtekar, Soil Scientist at CiBO Technologies; and Dale Sorensen, VP Agronomy at CiBO Technologies

Nitrogen (N) is a critical element for plant health, and our ability to synthetically produce N through the Haber–Bosch process — in conjunction with the adoption of new plant genetics — has allowed us to increase crop yields over the last five decades. The current world record for corn yield of 34 Mg/ha (540 bu/ac) is a testament to the revolutionary progress we have made in both agronomy and genetics.

But as we face increasingly complex global challenges like climate change and natural resource depletion, yield increases are not enough. We must also look at the overall sustainability of agricultural practices, and a key part of this is nitrogen use efficiency.

As crop growth varies over time (from year to year) and space (from one part of the field to another), optimizing N fertilizer applications on a field is not an easy task — especially because the crop nutrient demand needs to match the N supply from the soil. The lack of synchronization between supply and demand leads to N loss from the soil.

It is a common practice for growers to apply fertilizers uniformly across their fields at the beginning of the growing season, even though there is significant variability within fields in terms of N need and uptake. Any fertilizer not taken up by crops is lost, thereby lowering profits and harming the environment.

Soils are leaky systems, so these synthetic or organic fertilizers can leach out to groundwater or enter waterways where they feed blue-green algae, affecting aquatic life and drinking water. At least 500 coastal sites around the world are currently experiencing fertilizer-induced “dead zones” — and with climate change, the situation is likely to worsen.

Harmful algal bloom, Lake Eerie

Harmful algal bloom, Lake Eerie (Source: National Geographic)

Unless bold action is taken to better manage fertilizer use on farms, we will experience even more tragic effects to the environment and coastal economies.

The good news is: we can enhance the sustainability of our agricultural systems!

CiBO Technologies’ science-powered software enables more precise use of fertilizers in and across fields — allowing growers to maintain or increase yields, while also minimizing losses to the environment.

By combining remote sensing imagery with a process-based dynamic crop simulation model, we are able to identify areas within fields that respond differently to fertilizers. Understanding the variability to fertilizer response in a field is of paramount importance — it allows growers to make better decisions about when, how and where to apply fertilizers.

Spatial variation of nitrogen use efficiency across a corn field in the US Midwest

Spatial variation of nitrogen use efficiency across a corn field in the US Midwest

CiBO works closely with companies across the agricultural value chain, as well as with their farmer customers, to increase crop yields and reduce nitrogen loss in areas of fields where there is a lower response to fertilizer application. Our system is able to quantify spatial variation of plant nitrogen uptake and nitrogen losses across the fields, which then leads to the design of a precise variable rate fertilizers prescription map for farmers to use in their tractors.

$/ac lost from inefficient use of fertilizers from US Midwest fields.

$/ac lost from inefficient use of fertilizers from US Midwest fields.

The sophisticated crop model we use at CiBO Technologies is able to evaluate billions of “what-if” scenarios in order to quantify risks associated with any given management strategy, and the potential impact of various choices on yield, profit, and the environment.

Unfortunately, other precision agriculture technologies used in agriculture have up to now failed to deliver the exciting promise of greater fertilizer use efficiency. One of the biggest issues that these other solutions face has been how to reconcile the complexity of converting geospatial information about soil and plants into appropriate crop management advice. Without this level of insight, farmers may be advised to apply even more fertilizer to plants in the hopes of boosting productivity.

But it isn’t that simple.

As mentioned, there is a vast amount of yield variability within fields, which means that applying more fertilizer won’t have any impact if it is applied on crops growing in areas of minimal response to fertilizer. That’s why CiBO takes a systems approach to decode the complexity of how plants, soil, and weather interact and feed back to each other, so that we can simulate and predict outcomes of human interventions, such as fertilizer applications, in these agricultural ecosystems.

“We can simulate agricultural fields and compare various fertilizer treatment levels. For example, we may learn that for a part of a field, 100 kilograms of nitrogen fertilizer will give you the same response as 200 kilograms in 80–90% percent of the time. With that kind of confidence, why would a farmer ever choose to use 200 kilograms?” — Professor Bruno Basso, CiBO’s Co-Founder & Chief Scientist

CiBO’s approach stands out because we are the only ones combining data analytics with process-based computational agronomy. This gives us the opportunity to understand and interpret the complexity and variability that exists within fields so that we can determine exactly how much fertilizer is required at a specific location. We are able to advise on where to withhold or increase fertilizer application in order to reduce both economic costs and any potential environmental harm.

The net result is positive on all fronts: less fertilizer applied, less nitrogen lost, yield maintained or increased, and overall sustainability enhanced.

With so many challenges facing our planet, there isn’t time to waste. At CiBO Technologies, we have pulled together a world-class team from a variety of disciplines, and together with our customers, we are leading the way towards true, system-wide transformation of our agricultural production systems. Our goal is to keep fertilizers in the fields where they belong, so that we can improve productivity while also protecting and enhancing our precious waterways, for the benefit of people and the planet.

CiBO Technologies

CiBO Technologies