Grains Research and Development

Date: 29.08.2016

NANORP: National project casts new light on nitrogen use

Author: Brad Collis, Elizabeth Wells

Through the far-reaching National Agricultural Nitrous Oxide Research Program (NANORP), which is part of the Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’ Filling the Research Gap initiative, many have found that changes to the way nitrogen is used and managed has made their grain growing potentially more profitable.

Growers in Australia’s northern and southern higher-rainfall zones have been at the frontline of research and changes to farming systems to reduce agriculture’s production of damaging greenhouse gases stemming from nitrogen use.

The objective is to better match the amount of nitrogen applied and the crop’s actual need. The steady achievement of this objective is cutting nitrogen bills and reducing the amount of unused nitrogen that can escape into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide (N₂O), or leach into waterways.

As a warming greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. Efforts to tackle its escape have brought together soil science, atmospheric science and smart farming.

In the western region the NANORP project has had a different impact. It has dispelled concerns that growers’ efforts to increase soil organic carbon in WA’s sandy soils was contributing to the production and escape of N₂O and that this important soil-amelioration measure would have to be scaled back.

In the higher-rainfall regions of the southern and northern cropping zones, soil organic matter exacerbates N₂O emissions because it fuels the microbial feeding that converts nitrogen into gases. But many WA soils need more organic matter, so the NANORP research there sought to learn if increasing soil organic carbon was creating an N₂O problem. To WA growers’ relief,  the research has shown that while soil organic carbon does increase N₂O emissions in WA’s dry sandy soils, it is by less than 0.1 per cent – not enough to warrant any cessation of the current effort to build up those soils.

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’ NANORP project ran from 2012 to 2015 and brought together 21 research institutions coordinated by the GRDC. Scientific leadership and data coordination was provided by the Institute for Future Environments (IFE) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

The project’s stated aims were:

  • collate soil emissions research data into a national repository;
  • create robust models of soil N₂O emissions patterns; and
  • contribute to evidence-based national policies on soil N₂O emissions.

Standardised research data from NANORP activity has been stored in the N₂O Network data repository at QUT.

This issue of Ground Cover profiles the impact of NANORP research on some of Australia's growers:

North: Environmental farming can come down to soil chemistry
South: Soil tests not the whole picture
West: WA trials highlight nitrogen flipside

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Barley research and brewing on display

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Clouds lift in the approach to harvest

GRDC Project Code DAF00004-05, DAF00004-08, DAF00004-04, MCC00011

Region North, West