Nutritional strategies to support productive farming systems

Take home messages

  • A critical success factor for cropping systems that rely heavily on stored soil water is co-location of plant nutrients with moist soil and active roots
  • Our current fertiliser management practices need refinement, with low efficiency of fertiliser recovery often associated with nutrients and water being in different parts of the soil profile
  • There needs to be greater consideration of placement and timing of fertiliser applications to improve fertiliser nutrient recovery
  • Declining native fertility reserves means more complex fertiliser combinations will be needed to meet crop.

Introduction

This will not be a traditional paper that reports results of a specific research trial or set of trials from specific research projects. Rather, it is a set of observations made from the projects listed above, as well as those made by Richard Daniel (NGA) in their work on fertiliser N application strategies for winter crops. Collectively, the findings from this research, backed by the underlying regional trends in soil fertility and the drivers for successful rainfed cropping in our region, provide some useful insights into what are likely to be the critical success factors for future fertility management programs.

Do we have successful fertility management systems?

An effective fertiliser management strategy needs to consider all of the 4R’s (right product, in the right place, at the right time and at the right rate – Johnson and Bruulsema 2014) to maximize the chance of achieving effective use of available moisture. While everyone pays lip service to these 4R’s, our real thinking is often driven by considerations about only one – rate. We spend a lot of time agonizing over rate, because rate is clearly an important part of the economics of growing the crop. Rate is also an important consideration in terms of soil fertility maintenance (i.e. replacing what we remove in grain). In many cases the rate we can afford is not always the rate we need to apply to optimize productivity, much less balance nutrient removal, but we still spend a lot of time thinking about it.

Because of that, we find that the thinking about the other 3R’s tends to be much more superficial. Occasionally we might have a try at something a bit different, but in many cases we tend to keep doing what we have always done, and put the same products in the same place at the same time each year. At the same time, our background soil fertility reserves have fallen and our crops are becoming increasingly reliant on inputs of fertility (fertilisers, manures etc) to sustain productivity. It is this increasing reliance on fertilisers, especially N and P and (increasingly) K, that allows us to really see the inefficiency in use practices. The impact of these inefficiencies in terms of lost productivity can often dwarf any of the considerations of rate, and highlights challenges for productivity and profitability in the long term.

We will now cover some examples of inefficiencies that are apparent in what has been considered as best practice for both N and P, and how the emergence of K infertility is adding further complexity to fertiliser best practice.

Management of fertiliser N

In the case of N in winter cereals, the recent comprehensive analysis of a series of N experiments from 2014-2017 by Daniel et al. (2018) highlighted the poor winter crop recovery of fertiliser N applied in the traditional application window (the months leading up to sowing, or at sowing itself). Fertiliser N recovered in grain averaged only 15% for applications of 50 kg N/ha and 9% for 100 kg N/ha. On average, 65% of the applied N was still in the soil as mineral N at the end of the crop season, while only 15% was in the crop (grain and stubble). The fate of the other 20% of applied N could not be determined. Some of that N will carry over until the next season, but it means that you need last year’s fertiliser to get you through this year, but if you had a big year last year, leaving little residual N, or a lot of N was lost due to a wet season, the current crop may see little of the N applied in the previous year and will suffer as a result.

The poor winter crop recovery of applied N in the year of application mirrored that reported for summer sorghum in the NANORP research program reported by Bell, Schwenke and Lester (2016), with the use of 15N tracers enabling a more precise quantification of the fate of N applied prior to planting. Data from the Qld sites in commercial fields are shown in Figure 1 for the 40 and 80 kg N rates across three growing seasons. Fertiliser N in grain averaged 27% and 23% of the applied N for the 40 and 80N rates, respectively, while total crop uptake averaged only 37 and 32% for the same N rates. What is noticeable in this figure is the variable N losses (presumably via denitrification) and the residual N in the soil, which may or may not be available for a subsequent crop in the rotation, depending on the fallow conditions.

This bar graph shows the partitioning of fertiliser N between soil, plant and environmental loss pools for summer sorghum crops grown on the Darling Downs in UQ00066 from 2012 – 2016. Figure 1. Partitioning of fertiliser N between soil, plant and environmental loss pools for summer sorghum crops grown on the Darling Downs in UQ00066 from 2012 – 2016.

Both extensive studies have shown there can be significant amounts of residual N in the soil at the end of the growing season. Large amounts of that N are often found in quite shallow parts of the soil profile (i.e. the 0-10cm and possibly 10-20cm layers) and still strongly centred on the fertiliser bands, despite what were often significant falls of rain in-crop (i.e. 200-300mm). Even after a subsequent fallow, the Daniels et al. (2018) paper found that 50-60% of the mineral N residual from fertiliser applied in the previous season was still only in the top 45cm, with as much as half still in the 0-15cm layer. This largely surface-stratified residual N would have contributed to the quite muted (although still significant) grain yield response to the residual N in those studies.

Interestingly, findings from both the summer sorghum and winter cereal research suggest that crops recover mineral N that is distributed through the soil profile with much greater efficiency than fertiliser applied at or near sowing. In both seasons, 70-80% of the mineral N in the soil profile was recovered in the crop biomass, compared to recoveries of applied fertiliser that were commonly less than half that. The distribution of that N relative to soil water is likely to have played a major role in this greater recovery efficiency.

Management of fertiliser P

The substantial responses to deep P bands across the northern region where subsoil P is low have been detailed in a number of recent publications (Lester et al. 2019b, Sands et al. 2018), with these responses typically additive to any responses to starter P fertiliser (the traditional P fertiliser application method – e.g. Figure 2a, b). There has unfortunately been no direct measurement of P unequivocally taken from either deep or starter P bands due to the lack of suitable tracer technology, especially when we consider residual benefits over 4-5 years. However, simple differences in biomass P uptake in a single season suggest that the quantum of P accumulated from deep bands (3-5 kg P/ha) is substantially greater than that from starter P alone (1-1.5 kg P/ha) in all bar exceptionally dry seasons.

These two scatter graphs shows the response to different rates of deep P with and without applications of starter P fertiliser in (a) a wheat crop at Condamine in 2018, and (b) a sorghum crop at Dysart in 2018/19.  Grain yield for deep-placed P treatments (kg P/ha) with or without starter application. The vertical bars represent the standard error for each mean. (Lester et al. 2019a). Figure 2. Response to different rates of deep P with and without applications of starter P fertiliser in (a) a wheat crop at Condamine in 2018, and (b) a sorghum crop at Dysart in 2018/19.  Grain yield for deep-placed P treatments (kg P/ha) with or without starter application. The vertical bars represent the standard error for each mean. (Lester et al. 2019a).

Perhaps one of the most significant findings from the deep P research has been the relative consistency of P acquisition from deep bands, despite significant variability in seasonal conditions. Research results from sites in Central Queensland often provide the best examples of this, due to the extremely low subsoil P reserves in some of those situations – if the crop cannot access the deep P bands, there is not much else to find elsewhere in the subsoil! Interestingly, this type of profile P distribution is consistent with the lack of grain yield responses to starter P that were recorded over a number of years of trials in CQ and that contributed to reluctance to use starter P in some situations. Early growth responses that were consistent with the crop obtaining an extra 1-1.5 kg P/ha from the starter application were observed, but a lack of available profile P to grow biomass and fill grains limited any resulting yield responses.

The inability to acquire P from a depleted subsoil places a greater importance on access to P in the topsoil, which means that seasonal rainfall distribution has a huge impact on crop P status. This is illustrated for a site near Clermont in Figure 3 (a, b), in which the growing season conditions and crop P acquisition by successive crops of sorghum and chickpea are compared. From a yield perspective, deep P increased crop yield by 1100 kg and 960 kg for the sorghum and chickpea, relative to the untreated farmer reference treatment, and by 720 kg and 970 kg/ha for the same crops relative to the nil applied P treatment (0P) that received ripping and background nutrients. The similar quantum of yield responses in the two crops represented quite different relative yield increases (40-60% in the sorghum, versus about 300% in the chickpeas), and obviously had hugely different responses economically, given the price differential between sorghum and chickpea grain. However, from a nutrient use efficiency perspective it is interesting to note that the apparent P acquisition from the deep P was similar (3.3 kg P/ha in the sorghum and 2.7 kg P/ha in the chickpeas – Figure 3b)) despite the vastly different in-season rainfall (Figure 3a).

What is dramatically different, and what is driving the much larger relative yield response in the chickpea crop, was the inability to access P without deep P bands in that growing season. Crop P contents in the farmer reference and 0P treatments averaged 2.9 kg P/ha in the sorghum crop but only 0.6 kg P/ha in the chickpeas.  This difference was driven by the combination of deep sowing and extremely dry topsoils encountered in the 2018 winter season. The crop was planted below the 0-10cm layer, and there was never enough in-season rainfall to encourage later root growth and P recovery from that layer. Despite available moisture in the subsoil, there was not much P available to support growth and yield. In contrast, the sorghum crop was planted into the relatively P-rich top 10cm layer, which was then re-wet regularly over a significant proportion of the vegetative phase. This allowed better P acquisition from the background soil, but the deep P bands were still able to supplement this and provide an additional yield benefit.a)

These two line graphs show (a) Cumulative in-crop rainfall and (b) the relationship between crop P content and grain yield for consecutive crops of sorghum (2015/16) and chickpea (2018) grown at a site near Clermont, in Central Queensland (Sands et al., 2019). Figure 3. (a) Cumulative in-crop rainfall and (b) the relationship between crop P content and grain yield for consecutive crops of sorghum (2015/16) and chickpea (2018) grown at a site near Clermont, in Central Queensland (Sands et al., 2019).

Choice of product to address multiple nutrient limitations

As native fertility has been eroded by negative nutrient budgets and/or inappropriate placement, there are an increasing number of instances of complex nutrient limitations that require compound fertilisers to address multiple constraints.  This is further complicated as the relative severity of each constraint can change from season to season. Perhaps the best example has been the emergence of widespread examples of K deficiency in recent (drier) seasons, but which can ‘disappear’ in more favourable ones. This is an example of the impact of increasingly depleted and more stratified K reserves and is an issue that adds complexity to fertility management programs. Soil testing benchmarks for subsoil nutrients are improving as a result of current programs, but at best they are only likely to ring alarm bells for the different constraints, rather than predict the relative importance of each in future (uncertain) seasonal conditions. Examples provided in Figure 4, again from sites in Central Queensland, show fields where subsoil P and K would both be considered limiting to productivity, but the responses to deep placed P and K have varied with crop and seasonal conditions. Assuming enough N is applied, the site at Dysart shows a dominant P constraint which is evident in most seasons, and a smaller K limitation that is only visible once the P constraint has been overcome. The Gindie site, on the other hand, has limitations of both P and K, but the relative importance of each constraint seems to depend on the crop choice and/or seasonal conditions. In both cases, the appropriate agronomic response would be to apply both nutrients, but the relative economic returns of adding K to the fertiliser program (as opposed to higher/more frequent P additions) would be different.

The emergence of multiple constraints such as those shown in Figure 4 require a greater understanding of the implications of co-location of different products, especially in concentrated bands applied at high(er) rates, less frequently. There is evidence that effective use of banded K, at least in Vertosols, is dependent on co-location with a nutrient like P to encourage root proliferation around the K source (Figure. 5 – Bell et al., 2017). However, there is also evidence that there can be interactions between P and K applied together in concentrated bands that can reduce the availability of both nutrients.  The current GRDC project ‘UQ00086’ is exploring the reactions that occur in bands containing N, P and K, and the implications of changing the products and the in-band concentrations on nutrient availability.

These two bar graphs show examples of combinations of P and K limitations to crop performance at (a) Dysart and (b) Gindie, and the response to deep banded applications of those nutrients alone, or in combination. Figure 4. Examples of combinations of P and K limitations to crop performance at (a) Dysart and (b) Gindie, and the response to deep banded applications of those nutrients alone, or in combination.

What are the key farming systems characteristics complicating nutrient management?

The changing nutrient demands in dryland grains systems, especially on Vertosols, are driven by the combination of nutrient removal that has not been balanced by nutrient addition (especially in subsoil layers), and the reliance of our cropping systems on stored soil water for much of the growing season. Crops need access to adequate supplies of water and nutrients to perform, and while crop roots can acquire water from a soil layer with little to no nutrient, they certainly can’t acquire nutrients from soil layers that are dry. The co-location of water, nutrients and active crop roots enables successful crop production. Historically our cropping systems have been successful because (i) soils originally had moderate or higher reserves of organic and inorganic nutrients; (ii) there were sufficient reserves of those nutrients at depth that the crop could perform when the topsoil was dry; and (iii) our modern farming systems are now much better at capturing water in the soil profile for later season crop use.

Our soils are now increasingly characterised by low organic matter, with reserves of P and K that are concentrated in shallow topsoil layers and depleted at depth. Our typical fertiliser management program applies all nutrients into those topsoil layers, with the immobile ones like P and K staying there, and the mobile nutrients like N applied late in the fallow or at planting, when there is no wetting front to move the N deeper into the subsoil layers. Without that wetting front, even mobile nutrients like N are unable to move far enough into the soil profile to match the distribution of water – at least in the current crop season. We also grow a very low frequency of legumes in our crop rotation, which increases overall fertiliser demand and produces residues that are slow to decompose and release nutrients during the fallow and for the following crop. This means that nutrients like N are mineralized later in the fallow, again with less chance to move deeper into the soil profile for co-location with stored water.

This bar graph shows the impact of rate of applied K and co-location of K with other nutrients in a band (in this case P and S) on the proportion of crop K that was derived from applied fertiliser. The net result is an increasing frequency of dislocated reserves of stored soil water and nutrients, with in-crop rainfall at critical stages being a major determinant of whether the crop will be able to acquire the nutrients to achieve the water-limited yield potential. Unless our management systems change to address these issues, there will inevitably be a decline in overall water use efficiency across the cropping system, with an increasing frequency of poor or unprofitable crops. The changes that we think are needed require a stronger focus be placed on the ‘forgotten’ 3R’s – placement, timing and product choice/combination. Figure 5. The impact of rate of applied K and co-location of K with other nutrients in a band (in this case P and S) on the proportion of crop K that was derived from applied fertiliser. The net result is an increasing frequency of dislocated reserves of stored soil water and nutrients, with in-crop rainfall at critical stages being a major determinant of whether the crop will be able to acquire the nutrients to achieve the water-limited yield potential. Unless our management systems change to address these issues, there will inevitably be a decline in overall water use efficiency across the cropping system, with an increasing frequency of poor or unprofitable crops. The changes that we think are needed require a stronger focus be placed on the ‘forgotten’ 3R’s – placement, timing and product choice/combination.

In the concluding section of this paper, we provide a brief outline of what we feel are going to be key strategies that nutrient management programs of the future will need to consider. We note that a number of these have not yet been extensively validated or are simply hypotheses that are worth testing. However, they do show what we think are opportunities to address some of the main nutrient supply issues outlined in this paper.

Future nutrient management opportunities

In general

  • Focus more on feeding the soil to support the farming system, in addition to targeting the next crop in the rotation sequence. This will involve applying nutrients at a time and in a part of the soil profile that maximizes the chance of having nutrients co-located with water when future crops need it. Leaving these decisions to when the profile water has largely accumulated and the planting decision is more certain, is frequently leading to spatial dislocation between nutrient and water supply
  • Where possible, legume crops should be grown with greater frequency, as they reduce the fertiliser N demand. This will allow diversion of money from the fertiliser budget spent on N into other nutrients that can be exploited across the rotation
  • Be adaptive in fertiliser management, respond to the opportunities that are offered to put the right nutrient in the right place at the right time, and chose the right combination of products to match the soil nutrient status for multiple nutrients. This will involve a good understanding of the variation in profile nutrient status from field to field, and also understanding how seasonal conditions may impact on those application decisions.

For specific nutrients

N

  • Consider changing the timing of at least some of the fertiliser N input, so it is applied into dry soils at the beginning of a fallow. The Daniel et al. (2018) paper showed nice examples of how early fallow N applications can increase the proportion of fertiliser N that is accumulated in deeper profile layers, increasing the likelihood of N availability to support growth when the crop is experiencing dry periods. The greater efficiency of recovery of distributed ‘soil’ N compared to freshly applied fertiliser may allow possible rate reductions that could help to offset any interest paid on early fertiliser investment
  • Be aware when conditions have changed from the ‘normal’ upon which strategies have been developed. For example, what would differences in (especially shallow) profile moisture status at the beginning of a fallow mean for the denitrification risk to early N applications? How should you respond to an unusually large crop that has depleted the soil N profile? How would you respond to an unseasonal rainfall event after N applications had been made?
  • Legume residues should help to better synchronize the release of N with the recharge of profile moisture during a fallow. This should result in soil N that is readily accessible during a following crop, as well as lowering the fertiliser N requirement.

P and K

  • Don’t ignore starter fertilisers, but also be aware that they are not an effective solution to meeting crop P demand in most seasons. Starter P has an important role to play in early season growth and establishing yield potential, but the amount of P acquired from the starter P band is quite small. There may be opportunities to reduce the rates of P applied at planting if uniform distribution along the seeding trench can be maintained.  Fluid forms of P may possibly have a role. The ‘saved’ P should be diverted into increase rates or frequencies of deep P application
  • Starter P is especially important in very dry seasonal conditions, and can make an unusually large impact on crop P uptake due to restricted access to the rest of the P-rich topsoil. Under these conditions, starter P can also have a large impact on secondary root growth and improved soil P access
  • Deep applied P and K work – use them. Question marks still exist about the length of the residual effect, and some of the risks from co-locating products in a band. Minimize the risk by applying products in more closely spaced bands (i.e. at lower in-band concentrations) more often (i.e. lower application rates more frequently)
  • Remember that the main subsoil constraint has generally been P, so get the P rate right and complement that with additional K as funds allow
  • Don’t let subsoil P and K fall too far! Whilst we have achieved some great responses to deep P (and K) bands, and they are certainly economic, we have not seen evidence that a deep banded application (of P at least) is sufficient to completely overcome a severe deficiency. The band is a very small proportion of the soil volume, and when roots proliferate around a band, they dry it out. Unless the band area re-wets during the season, allowing roots a second opportunity to access the banded nutrient, the amount of nutrient recovered will be limited. In short, bands provide a useful but not luxury supply. Crop nutrient concentrations in foliage and grains still show signs of being P deficient in many situations, and it is obvious that the more of the subsoil volume that can be fertilized (more bands, more often) the greater the chance we have of meeting demand.

Acknowledgements

The research undertaken as part of this project is made possible by the significant contributions of growers through both trial cooperation and the support of the GRDC, the author would like to thank them for their continued support.

References

Bell M, Schwenke G and Lester D (2016). Understanding and managing N loss pathways. GRDC Updates in Coonabarabran and Goondiwindi, March 2016.

Bell MJ, Mallarino AP, Moody PW, Thompson ML, Murrell AS (2017). Soil characteristics and cultural practices that influence potassium recovery efficiency and placement decisions. Proc., Frontiers of Potassium Workshop, Rome 25-27 January 2017.

Johnston AM and Bruulsema T.W. (2014). 4R Nutrient Stewardship for Improved Nutrient Use Efficiency. Procedia Engineering 83:  365 – 370.

Daniel R, Norton R, Mitchell A, Bailey L, Kilby D, Duric B (2018). Nitrogen use (in)efficiency in wheat – key messages from 2014-2017. GRDC Update Goondiwindi, March 2018.

Lester D and Bell M (2019a). Responses to phosphorus and potassium by grain crops in southern Queensland. Pp. 26-29. In: Weir D and Grundy T (Eds). Queensland Grains Research 2018-19. Regional Research Agronomy Report, QDAF.

Lester D, Bell M and Hagan J (2019b). Deep P update 2019 – Multi-year grain yield impacts and economic returns for southern Queensland cropping. GRDC Update Warra, March 2019.

Sands D, Bell M and Lester D (2018). Getting nutrition right in Central Queensland. GRDC Updates at Emerald and Biloela, December 2018.

Sands D, Lester D, Bell M and Hagan J (2019). Responses to deep placement of phosphorus and potassium in chickpea – Clermont. Pp 45-52. In: Weir D and Grundy T (Eds). Queensland Grains Research 2018-19. Regional Research Agronomy Report, QDAF.

Contact details

Mike Bell
University of Queensland
Gatton Campus
Mb: 0429 600730
Email: m.bell4@uq.edu.au

GRDC Project code: UQ00063, UQ000666, UQ00078, UQ00082