Solving the mystery of fertilizer loss from Midwest cropland

ScienceDaily | 4/15/2019 | Staff
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"This is the first time anyone has been able to quantify how much small-scale yield variability there is in the United States Corn Belt," said Bruno Basso, MSU professor of ecosystems science and lead author of the study. "Our findings allow farmers to know exactly which portions of their farm fields have stable yields -- which allows them to better manage their variable fields to save money, reduce fertilizer losses and lower greenhouse gas emissions."

Basso and his MSU co-authors -- Guanyuan Shuai, Jinshui Zhang and Phil Robertson -- discovered that almost all fields have certain areas with consistently low or high yields, meaning much of the fertilizer added to low-yielding areas will go unused and be lost to the environment. At the same time, unused nitrogen is lost to the environment rather than taken up by the crop. The study shows that lost nitrogen from 10 Midwest states totals nearly $1 billion of wasted fertilizer and 6.8 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Research - Scientific - Reports - Losses - Areas

The research, published in Scientific Reports, is the first to quantify nitrogen losses from the low-producing areas of individual fields. Basso's team used satellite imagery to measure eight years' worth of sub-yield fields for 70 million acres of farmland in the Midwest. The analysis provided the researchers with a finely resolved image of the entire Midwest's corn production, Basso said.

To validate the satellite imagery the team compared the satellite data against 10 years of high-resolution yield data collected by sensors mounted on combine harvesters from more than 1,000 farms.

Pixels - Images - Crop - Basso - %

"We color-coded pixels in the images to see where the crop was stable and high-yielding, where it was stable and low-yielding and where it was unstable year-over-year," Basso said. "In total, about 50% of the subfield areas we analyzed were stable and high-yielding. The underperforming and the unstable...
(Excerpt) Read more at: ScienceDaily
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