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Nutrient Management Handbook


First edition, November 2016

Copyright 2016 IFA, WFO and GACSA. All rights reserved.

The publication can be downloaded from IFAs and WFOs websites.

To obtain paper copies, contact IFA or WFO.

International Fertilizer Association World Farmers Organisation GACSA Facilitation Unit

49 Avenue dIna Via del Tritone, 102 Food and Agriculture Organization
75116 Paris 00187 Roma of the United Nations
France Italy Viale delle Terme di Caracalla
Tel: + 33 1 53 93 05 00 Tel: +39 06 4274 1158 00153 Rome
Fax: +33 1 53 93 05 45/47 Fax: +39 06 4200 0750 Italy

The main objective of the guide is to provide general information on the con-
cerned matter. This publication does not replace any professional advice and it
does not represent a formal endorsement of the expressed positions therein.
1.1 ESSENTIAL NUTRIENTS FOR HEALTHY CROPS.......................................................................................................... 1
1.2 WHAT ARE THE MAIN NUTRIENT SOURCES................................................................................................................ 2

2. MANAGING NUTRIENTS EFFICIENTLY AND EFFECTIVELY...................................................7

2.1 WHAT IS NUTRIENT USE EFFICIENCY?......................................................................................................................... 7
2.2 EFFICIENCY AND EFFECTIVENESS GOALS ARE COMPLEMENTARY........................................................................ 9

3. AGRICULTURAL NUTRIENT CYCLES AND LOSS PATHWAYS................................................11

4.1 MINERAL AND ORGANIC NUTRIENT SOURCES ARE COMPLEMENTARY................................................................. 13

5. NUTRIENT STEWARDSHIP...................................................................................................15
5.1 PRINCIPLES OF BEST MANAGEMENT PRACTICES AND NUTRIENT STEWARDSHIP............................................. 15
5.2 RIGHT NUTRIENT SOURCE............................................................................................................................................. 17
5.3 RIGHT RATE..................................................................................................................................................................... 18
5.4 RIGHT TIME...................................................................................................................................................................... 20
5.5 RIGHT PLACE................................................................................................................................................................... 21


6.1 NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT AND FOOD AND NUTRITION SECURITY......................................................................... 23
6.2 NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT AND SOIL HEALTH............................................................................................................ 24
6.3 WATER X NUTRIENT INTERACTIONS............................................................................................................................ 26
6.4 NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT AND CLIMATE CHANGE.................................................................................................. 27
6.5 NUTRIENT MANAGEMENT AND THE ENVIRONMENT................................................................................................ 30

7. HIGHLIGHTS........................................................................................................................33


Balanced and precise crop nutrient application - of organic as well as mineral
fertilizers - is a prerequisite relevant tool for meeting the second Sustainable
Development Goal to end hunger, achieve food security, improved nutrition
and promote sustainable agriculture. It is also a crucial building block of
climate-smart agriculture. Soil-and crop-specific plant nutrition increases
agricultural productivity with a view towards providing food security for
an expected global population of about 10 billion people by 2050, but also
ensures a maximum uptake of nutrients by plants and a concomitant de-
crease of nutrient losses to the environment, including emissions of nitrous
oxide. By sustainably increasing productivity on arable land, efficient and ef-
fective fertilization also safeguards the worlds forests and help maintain or
increase soil organic matter, two enormous carbon sinks. Last but not least,
as one of the effects of climate change in the long run will be an increase of
temperature and water stress, proper crop nutrition will help build resilience
in agricultural crops, a prerequisite for climate change adaptation.

The worlds farmers are on the frontline of the tremendous challenges facing
the agricultural sector. With the unfortunate decline in extension services
seen in many parts of the world, greater efforts to transfer knowledge on best
management practices in the area of plant nutrition are required. Towards this
end, WFO, IFA and GACSA are delighted to release this handbook, which is
intended to outline the key principles of precise and balanced crop nutrition, to
assist farmers in their invaluable work of feeding the growing global popula-
tion, while improving and safeguarding soil health in a changing climate.

Building on the premises of climate-smart agriculture and the principles of

integrated soil fertility management, which call for combining organic and mi
neral nutrient sources with appropriate soil management practices and crop
variety selection, and on the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship, namely the need to
determine - based on crop-and soil-specific investigation - the 1) correct source
of fertilizers (matching the fertilizer types with the crop needs); 2) the right rate
(matching the amount of fertilizer with the crop requirements); 3) the right
time (making nutrients available according to the crop production cycle); and
4) the right place (placing the nutrients where crops can best access them),
this handbook provides useful and practical information intended to facilitate
efficient and effective crop nutrition by agricultural practitioners.

This Nutrient Management Handbook provides farmers and farmers orga-

nizations with useful and straightforward practical information on the com-
bination of fertilizers and their effects on plant growth and on soils, including
guidelines on efficient nutrient management techniques, which should be
tailored to the specificities of particular crops, soils and climatic conditions.

This joint effort by WFO, IFA and GACSA is a good example of a multi-stake-
holder partnership to promote Sustainable Development Goal 2 and cli-
mate-smart agriculture, and our three organizations are committed to dis-
seminating its recommendations to farm groups around the world.

As a precondition for growth, health macronutrients (S, Mg and Ca) and
and the production of nutritious food, micronutrients (Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, B, Mo,
plants require essential nutrients Cl and Ni) based on average concen-
(macro and micronutrients) in suffi- trations in plants.
cient quantities.
If a single essential plant nutrient is
Seventeen elements have been shown available in insufficient quantity, it af-
to be essential for plants: carbon (C), fects plant growth and thus the yield.
hydrogen (H), oxygen (O), nitrogen
(N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K),
sulphur (S), magnesium (Mg), calcium
(Ca), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), zinc
(Zn), copper (Cu), boron (B), molyb-
denum (Mo), chlorine (Cl), nickel (Ni).
Furthermore, additional elements may
be essential to a few plant species, e.g.
sodium (Na) and cobalt (Co).

Carbon, H and O are obtained from

the atmosphere and water, and are
not considered mineral elements. The
remaining essential elements can be
Illustration of Leibigs Law of the Minimum that states
divided into three groups: primary ma- that yield potential is determined by the most limiting
cronutrients (N, P and K), secondary factor in the field.

Plant growth is limited by the essential but, nowadays, elements such as S,
element that is furthest below its opti- Zn and B are increasingly deficient in
mum. Nitrogen, P and K are generally both soils and plants, becoming new
the most widely deficient elements limiting factors throughout the world.

Nutrients can come from a variety fertilization is now becoming a com-
of sources: mon practice in developed countries
and more and more in emerging and
Rock weathering is a slow process that developing economies.
releases small amount of nutrients an-
nually. It is insufficient to achieve me- Added irrigation water can also con-
dium to high yields over time. tain nutrients available to crops.

Soil nutrients from previous appli- Crop residues, such as leaves, stems
cations, which have not been taken and roots, when left on/in the soil, re-
up by previous crops are either lost lease the nutrients they contain. Crop
to the environment or stored in soils residues are mainly rich in K. That is
and potentially available to subse- why residue incorporation has, over
quent crops. Some nutrients such the years been the chief source of
as N and S can be prone to signi this element. However, burning and
ficant losses in the year of applica- conversion into livestock feed has
tion under wet conditions. Nutrients gradually depleted K reserves in the
such as P and K remain in soils for soil. Crop residues vary greatly in
longer periods of time, usually se nutrient content, and the amount of
veral years, subject to soil types, plant available nutrients that are re-
rainfall and management practices. leased in a specific time period can
only be determined from local data.
Atmospheric deposition can be
significant in some areas, especially Compost (organic matter that has
for N and S. In response to regulations been decomposed) can be added
reducing S emissions to mitigate re- to soils to supply nutrients and
lated acid rains, this input has been serve as soil conditioner. Quality of
declining over time, S has become composts can vary with raw mate-
an increasingly limiting factor, and S rials and processes used.

Livestock manure is a valuable plants. BNF is found in a number
nutrient source. Nutrient content of crop-bacteria combinations. It is
of manure varies widely between greatest in symbiotic systems de-
sources and farm management veloped between leguminous crops
practices. It is widely recognized (e.g. beans, peas, alfalfa) and rhizo-
that poor quality feed for livestock bia. BNF rates range from 20 to 400
results in manure with low nutrient kg N/ha/year depending on plant
contents. Manures should be ana- species, length of the growing sea-
lyzed for nutrient content. son and climatic conditions.

Manufactured fertilizers are pro-
duced by the fertilizer industry. A
N 10-15 25-30 20-30
wide range of products, supplying
P 1-2 20-25 4-10
one or more essential mineral nu-
K 10-15 11-20 15-20 trients, are available to farmers. On
Ca 2-5 40-45 5-20 average, world farmers apply some
Mg 1-3 6-8 3-4 180 million tons of fertilizers (on a
S 1-2 5-15 4-50 nutrient basis) annually to supple-
ment nutrient sources available on/
General nutrient content values (g/kg) of crop
residues and poultry and livestock manures
near their farm, and achieve their
(Adapted from Barker et al., 2000). sustainable yield and quality goals.

Biosolids (residual solids from ur- Fertilizers containing only one pri-
ban wastewater treatment) can be mary macronutrient are referred
recycled and provide significant to as straight fertilizers. Those
quantities of plant nutrients. Nu with two or three primary macronu
trients in biosolids vary in quantity trients are called multi-nutrient
and forms, depending on the source, fertilizers. Multi-nutrient fertilizers
treatment, storage and handling can be either compounds/complexes
processes. Their content in plant (all nutrients in the same granule)
nutrients and in possible contami- or bulk blends (physical mixing of
nants should be regularly analyzed. different granules). Each fertilizer
product has its own advantages
Biological N fixation (BNF) is the and disadvantages, which may
conversion of inert atmosphe depend on the local agro-ecologi-
ric dinitrogen molecules (N2) into cal and economic conditions (See
forms of N that can be utilized by Reetz, 2016 for details).


Ammonia 82 0 0 0 Gas

Urea 45-46 0 0 0 Solid

Ammonium sulphate 21 0 0 24 Solid

Ammonium nitrate 33.0-34.5 0 0 0 Solid

Calcium ammonium nitrate 20.4-27.0 0 0 0 Solid

Urea ammonium nitrate 28-32 0 0 0 Liquid

Monoammonium phosphate 11 52 0 0 Solid

Diammonium phosphate 18 46 0 0 Solid

Potassium nitrate 13 0 44 0 Solid

Ground rock phosphate 0 20-40 0 0 Solid

Single superphosphate 0 16-20 0 12 Solid

Triple superphosphate 0 46 0 0 Solid

Potassium chloride 0 0 60 0 Solid

Potassium sulphate 0 0 50 18 Solid

Average nutrient content of some important fertilizer materials

(nutrients as % of product).

It is important to note that crops taken up by plants. The amount of

respond to plant nutrients from all nutrients provided by the different
sources but they can take up nutrients sources varies greatly between
only in their inorganic form. Organic and within agro-ecosystems.
nutrient sources must be mine Sustainable crop nutrition identi-
ralized (converted from an organic fies and utilizes all available sour
to an inorganic form) before being ces of plant nutrients.

Photosynthesis, thanks to light significance for improved wa-
energy, combines carbon dio ter use efficiency and enhanced
xide (CO2) and water to produce crop yields. The annual global
carbohydrates. Through this pro- fertilization value of man-made
cess, CO2 is the only C source for CO2 has been estimated to US$
all organic matter, about half of 140 billion.
which consists of C. This charac
teristic qualifies CO2 as the most Under confined systems such as
important element for life in modern greenhouses, increasing
quantitative terms, but efficient CO2 concentration is a common
photosynthesis also requires all practice to boost yield. However, to
other essential nutrients. avoid dilution of other nutrients in
the faster growing plant tissue and
The increase of atmospheric CO2 related loss of nutritive value, it is
since the beginning of industriali- necessary to supply all the essen-
zation, estimated between 0.03% tial mineral nutrients in a balanced
and 0.04%, has been of global way and sufficient quantities.

Nutrients are exported from the In soils where fertility is suboptimal,
field when crops are harvested. This and where this practice is economi-
is called soil nutrient mining. The cally viable, it may be useful to apply
amount of nutrient removed by the higher nutrient application rates, in
harvest is specific to each crop and combination with other necessary
crop part and proportional to yield. soil fertility management practices,
To maintain soil fertility for sustaina to alleviate nutrient-related limiting
ble crop yields and quality, nutrients factors, improve nutrient availability
exported from the field with the to crops and enhance soil health.
harvest and lost to the environment
must be replaced by other organic To achieve medium to high yields
and/or mineral sources. over time for improved food security

and farmers income, nutrients from in- purchased organic nutrient sources.
digenous sources, such as soil supply, Limiting nutrients will be replenished
atmospheric deposition, BNF and ma- by applying mineral and/or organic in-
nure recycling, may not be sufficient. puts and, in the case of manufactured
To maintain high yields, farmers usually fertilizers, by using multi-nutrient fer-
require additional nutrient inputs, in the tilizers or combining various comple-
form of manufactured fertilizers or as mentary fertilizer materials.


Nutrient inputs and outputs must be balanced to optimize crop yield, sustain
productivity and minimize losses to the environment.
A positive balance increases risk of nutrient losses and a negative balance
results in soil nutrient mining.

Fertilizers can also be managed in ways that enhance the nutritional va
lue of crops and, in turn, improve animal and human health. For instan
ce, N and S fertilization influences protein content and quality; K fertili-
zation can increase antioxidant concentration; and Zn fertilization can
boost grain Zn density.

From a farmers perspective, nutrient from the nutrient input. For monito
use efficiency can be defined as the ring purposes, it is calculated as the
proportion of the nutrients applied output/input ratio, i.e. the proportion
(from all sources) that are taken up of the nutrients applied that end up
by the crop, i.e. how to get the best in the harvested product.

Calculation of N use efficiency (NUE)

Low output/input ratios (e.g. below Nutrient use efficiency is highly
50%) often reflect risks of nutrient influenced by the way mineral fertili
losses to the environment, while zers, other nutrient sources, crops and
high ratios (e.g. above 90%) may re- soils are managed. Nutrient use effi-
flect soil nutrient mining practices ciency has been improving for about
that reduce soil fertility if practiced three decades in developed countries,
over several years. Both cases are where farmers have access to mo
unsustainable. The green zone, dern technology and information. It
where crop productivity is high and illustrates the move to sustainable in-
where the nutrient output/input ra- tensification, where farmers increase
tio is considered close to the opti- agricultural productivity while preser
mum, is specific to each cropping ving the resource base and reducing
system and nutrient. risk of environmental impacts asso
ciated with the nutrient surplus per
unit output. In contrast, the situation
is still deteriorating in most developing
countries. Access to and adoption of
best management practices (nutrient
stewardship and integrated approa
ches) is required for reverting the
trend in developing countries.

Because nutrients interact between

each other, enhanced nutrient use
efficiency can be achieved by better
Typical N use efficiency (NUE) trend relative to
managing the nutrient in question, as
crop yield over time. well as by better managing the nu
Farming systems progressively move trients with which it interacts (through
from the red zone to the orange zone and, balanced fertilization). For instance,
ultimately, the green zone, which reflects
high yield and optimum N use efficiency
S is known to improve protein synthe-
(Adapted from Zhang et al., 2015) sis and thus N use efficiency.

While improving nutrient use ef- tilizer applications rates but that
ficiency is an important goal, it might be to the detriment of crop
should not be to the detriment of yield. While tracking nutrient use
other key performance areas such efficiency provides useful infor-
as crop yield , soil fertility, water mation, it should be part of a set
productivity, etc., which reflect ef- of complementary indicators to
fectiveness of the farming system. ensure meaningful interpretation.
For instance, it is possible to in-
crease nutrient use efficiency by Best management practices recom-
mining soil nutrient reserves but it mended to farmers for their site- and
is an unsustainable option because crop-specific conditions should pro-
such a practice would impact soil vide options that improve the overall
fertility in the medium to long term. performance and sustainability of
the farming system, taking into ac-
Similarly, it is possible to achieve count economic, social and environ-
higher use efficiency by cutting fer- mental goals set by society.

Nutrient use efficiency (measured as the output/input ratio) is typically highest at very low nutrient appli-
cation rates, which lead to low yield.

The principal forms of N in the soil of the N in a surface soil is present
are organic N compounds and mine as organic N. These different N frac-
ral N in the form of ammonium (NH4 ) tions undergo various transformation
and nitrate (NO3 ). Mineral N is only a processes, which may lead to various
small fraction of the total soil N. Most losses to the air and water.

In the case of P, the main losses oc- inputs, through addition of organic
cur through soil erosion and runoff forms (if available), mineral fertilizers
of particulate matter. Leaching los and biological N fixation, in order to
ses of P are small relative to those fill the gap caused by nutrient exports
of N owing to the low mobility of P in with the harvested product and nu
soils. Potassium is also lost through trient losses at different stages of the
erosion, runoff and leaching. Lea nutrient cycle. The continuous chal-
ching losses are proportionally lar lenge for the farmer is to apply the
ger for K vs. P owing to Ks greatest right nutrient source at the right rate,
mobility in soils. The S cycle is more at the right time, in the right place
complex with, similarly to N, losses in order to sustain optimum yields
to both the air and water. and, at the same time, minimize en-
vironmental impacts. Both lack and
Because agricultural nutrient cycles excess of nutrients may result in ad-
are leaky, sustainable agricultural verse effects on human health, the
production relies on external nutrient environment and farmers income.

The actual agricultural N cycle: an open system with unavoidable losses


Mineral fertilizers have a higher nutrient soil properties such as soil structure,
content than organic sources. They have water infiltration and retention capacity.
a well-defined nutrient composition, and In view of these respective benefits,
nutrients in mineral fertilizers are often mineral and organic nutrient sour
readily available to crops. Organic nu- ces are complementary. Best ma
trient sources are, by definition, rich in nagement practices take advanta
organic matter, which helps improving ge of this synergy.

From a nutrient standpoint, integra- supplement them with manufactu-
ted management can be considered red fertilizers to achieve the farmers
at two different levels: yield and quality goals, and restore
soil fertility where soil testing shows
Integrated Plant Nutrient Manage- low available nutrient levels.
ment (IPNM) aims at combining
organic and mineral nutrient sour- While IPNM is an approach focu-
ces, building on the respective ad- sing on the nutrient supply aspects
vantages of both sources. In IPNM, of crop production, Integrated Soil
farmers apply organic sources avai- Fertility Management (ISFM) en-
lable on the farm or in its vicinity and compasses all dimensions of plant

nutrient uptake, including se- may result in improved uptake of
lection of crop varieties and the applied fertilizer nutrients and in-
biological and physical dimen- creased yields.
sions of soil health, which can
enhance uptake. For instance, Integrated plant nutrient and soil
under drought stress conditions, fertility management share simi-
a soil covered with organic mat- lar objectives, namely to ensure
ter can hold more soil moisture efficient nutrient uptake and plant
than a soil that does not have growth with minimal adverse im-
mulch, and this extra moisture pacts on the environment.

Conceptual relationship between the agronomic efficiency of fertili

zers and organic resources as one moves from current practice to
full ISFM. At constant fertilizer application rates, yield is linearly
related to agronomic efficiency. Note that the figure does not suggest
the need to sequence components in the order presented.

Practices shown by research and nutrient losses to the environment.
experience to be more producti- Application of fertilizer BMPs in
ve, more profitable, more environ- each of the four areas of nutrient
ment-friendly, and more social- management (source, rate, time
ly-acceptable are designated as and place) provides the basis
fertilizer (or nutrient) best manage- of nutrient stewardship, a fra-
ment practices (BMPs). The goal of mework for the efficient and ef-
fertilizer BMPs is to match nutrient fective use of plant nutrients to
supply with crop requirements to achieve economic, social and envi-
optimize yield while minimizing ronmental benefits.

An individual BMP may improve quires adoption of a set of comple-

performance in one or two manage- mentary BMPs that will address the
ment areas. Because the four mana- four areas. If any of the four areas
gement areas should be paid equal are overlooked, on-farm nutrient ma-
attention, nutrient stewardship re- nagement is unlikely to be efficient

and effective. The weakest area of osmosis. In this case, fertilizer appli-
management will have the strongest cation should be well timed with wa-
influence on overall use performance. ter or moisture availability in the soil.

Selection of BMPs varies by location, Recognize interactions with

and those that work best for a given other cropping system factors.
farm will meet local soil and climatic Examples include cultivar, planting
conditions, crop type, management date, plant density, crop rotation, etc.
system, and other sitespecific factors.
Recognize interactions among
nutrient source, rate, time and place.
For example, a controlled-release
source likely should not be applied
with the same timing as a water-so-
luble source.

Avoid detrimental effects on plant

roots, leaves and seedlings.
Diagram of the Global Framework for 4R For example, banded fertilizers need
Nutrient Stewardship.
The concept is centered on the interlocking
to be kept within safe distance from
4Rs, which influence the cropping systems
contribution to the three dimensions of
the seed to avoid possible damage
sustainability (IFA, 2009; IPNI, 2012) to seedlings.

The following general scientific Recognize effects on crop quality

principles apply to fertilizer BMPs: as well as yield.
For example, N influences both yield
Be consistent with understood and the protein content. Protein is
agronomic mechanisms. an important nutrient in animal and
Take into account the related scienti- human nutrition, and it influences
fic disciplines, including soil fertility, bread-making quality in wheat. Ni-
plant nutrition, soil physics and che- trogen rates above those needed for
mistry, hydrology, and agro-meteoro- optimum yield may increase protein
logy. For instance, moisture stress content, but over-application has a
and, hence wilting may worsen un- negative impact on plant health, crop
der dry conditions as the nutrient yield and quality, and environmental
concentration around the root zone sustainability. Nitrogen utilization
draws water from the plant through in N-efficient cultivars is to be paid

due attention: Some varieties growing of the harvestable part. Therefore, pro-
under high N tend to grow lavishly i.e. per choice of crop varieties and adap-
greater vegetative part at the expense ted fertilization programs is essential.

The right source for a nutrient mana- Suit soil physical
gement system must ensure that a and chemical properties.
balanced supply of all essential nu- Examples include avoiding nitrate
trients is present in plantavailable application to waterlogged soils and
forms, whenever required by the crop use of surface applications of urea
throughout the growing season. Se- without a urease inhibitor on high pH
lection of the right source (including soils. Some fertilizer have acidifying
organic sources) must also consider effects on soils; they should be ap-
susceptibility to nutrient loss, any plied to alkaline soils only, or in com-
nutrient interactions or compatibility bination with liming.
issues, potential sensitivity of crops
to the source, and risk from any Recognize interactions between
non-nutrient elements included with nutrient elements and sources.
the source material. The right source Examples include the phospho-
may vary with the crop, climate, soil rus-zinc interaction, nitrogen increa
properties of the field, available pro- sing phosphorus availability, and fer-
ducts, economic considerations and tilizer complementing manure.
options for method of application.
Recognize blend compatibility.
Scientific principles applying to the Certain combinations of sources/
right source of plant nutrients include: products attract moisture when
mixed, limiting uniformity of appli-
Supply nutrients in cation of the blended material; gra-
plant-available forms. nule size should be similar to avoid
The nutrient applied is water-soluble product segregation; certain fluid
and plant-available, or is in a form sources may salt-out at low tem-
that converts readily into a plant peratures or react with other com-
available form in the soil. ponents to form gels or precipitate.

Recognize crop sensitivities to can be detrimental to the quality of
associated elements. some fruits and vegetables.
Most nutrients have an accompa
nying ion that may be beneficial, Control effects of non-nutritive elements.
neutral or detrimental to some For example, raw materials used for fer-
crops. For example, the chloride tilizer production may contain non-nutri-
accompanying potassium in muriate tive trace metals. Addition of these ele-
of potash is beneficial to maize but ments should be kept within safe limits.

The right rate matches the plant-avai and plant analysis, response ex-
lable supply of nutrients from all sour periments, omission plots, or
ces to the nutrient requirements of the saturated reference strips.
plant. Understanding of the nutrient
needs of the crop through the various Assess all available nutrient sources.
growth stages is a first step to pro- Includes quantity and plant availa-
viding the right rate. Application rate bility of nutrients in crop residues,
should be selected to balance nutrient green manures, animal manure,
supply with crop demand throughout composts, biosolids, irrigation wa-
the growing season to avoid nutrient ter, atmospheric deposition and
deficiency or excess. Crop yield and manufactured fertilizers.
quality will be restricted if the rate is
too low while excess application can Assess plant demand.
lead to crop damage and negative en- The quantity of nutrient taken up
vironmental impacts. Both excess and in one season depends on crop
insufficient nutrient application will de- yield and nutrient content. Ac-
crease economic profitability. curate assessment of attainable
yield is important, and design to-
Assess soil nutrient supply. tal crop production programs to
Practices used may include soil achieve attainable yield.

Predict fertilizer use efficiency. Consider nutrient budgets.
Some losses are unavoidable. While If the output of nutrients from a crop-
losses should be minimized, una- ping system exceeds inputs, soil fer-
voidable losses must be considered tility declines in the long term. In the
when determining the rate for mee opposite situation, if surplus nutrients
ting plant demand. are lost, environmental quality and
economic performance are affected.
Consider season-to-season
variability in nutrient demand. Consider rate-specific economics.
Yield potential and nutrient demand Taking into account spatial and tem-
are affected by season-to-season poral yield variability, for nutrients
variability in climate and other fac- unlikely to be retained in the soil, the
tors, including management, pro- most economic rate of application
viding opportunities for real-time is where the last unit of nutrient ap-
nutrient management with variable plied is equal in value to the increase
fertilizer rates (technologies include in crop yield it is anticipated to ge
chlorophyll meter, leaf color chart, nerate (law of diminishing returns).
and other methods of in-crop nu Residual value of soil nutrients to
trient assessment). future crops should be considered.

Effects of nutrient rate on crop yield, showing potential deficiency and

toxicity effects of not applying the right rate of nutrients.

Crop nutrient uptake rates change but if the crops uptake need precedes
throughout the growing season as the release through mineralization, defi-
the crop moves from emergence to ciencies may limit productivity.
vegetative growth, through repro-
ductive stages, and on to maturity. Assess nutrient release and
To attain optimum productivity, suf- availability from fertilizer products.
ficient plant-available nutrients must Release rate and availability of
be present where the crop can ac- fertilizer nutrients are influenced
cess them to meet crop demand at by weather and soil moisture con-
all stages through the growing sea- ditions at application, resulting in
son. However, if the nutrient is pre potential significant nutrient and
sent in the soil for an extended time yield losses if not synchronized
prior to crop uptake, it may move out with the crops requirements.
of the rooting zone or be converted
to unavailable forms. The right ti Recognize timing of weather
ming of nutrient application will sup- factors influencing nutrient loss.
port crop yield and nutrition quality Specific forms of a nutrient can
and minimize nutrient losses. perform better than others under
certain climate conditions and in
Assess timing of crop uptake. certain seasons. For example, in
Depends on factors such as planting temperate regions, leaching los
date, plant growth characteristics, ses tend to be more frequent in the
sensitivity to deficiencies at par- spring and autumn.
ticular growth stages. Nutrient sup-
ply must be synchronized with the Evaluate logistics of field
crops nutrient requirements, which operations.
usually follows an S-shaped curve. For example, multiple applications
of nutrients may or may not combine
Assess dynamics of soil nutrient supply. with those of crop protection pro
Mineralization of soil organic matter sup- ducts. Nutrient applications should
plies a large quantity of some nutrients, not delay time-sensitive operations

such as planting or the need for which are compatible with most
insect or disease control. Under of the crop protection products
these constraints, foliar fertilizers can be used.

Having nutrients in the right place - Manage spatial soil variability
vertically and horizontally - ensures within fields and among farms.
that plant roots can absorb enough Soils do affect crop yield potential
of each nutrient at all times during and vary in nutrient supplying capa
the growing season. Placement city or nutrient loss potential.
systems can be used to position
fertilizer in relation to the growing Fit needs of tillage system.
roots. In recent years, availability Recognize logistics of soil prepara-
of precision farming technology tion. In conservation farming, ensure
has made it also possible to fine- subsurface applications maintain
tune nutrient application, varying soil coverage by crop residue and do
the rate of application within the not compromise seed-bed quality.
field, to account for variability of
soil test levels and yield potential. Limit potential off-field transport of
Recognize root-soil dynamics. Identify fields and field areas most
Roots of annual crops explore soil prone to nutrient losses. Keep nutrient
progressively over the season. losses through erosion, runoff, lea
Placement needs to ensure nu ching, volatilization, nitrification and
trients are intercepted as needed. denitrification within acceptable limits.
An example is the band placement
of phosphate fertilizer for maize, Reduce risk of nutrient toxicity on
ensuring sufficient nutrition of the seedlings.
young seedling, increasing yields Avoid toxicity on seedlings from ex-
substantially even though amounts cess concentrations of nutrients in
applied and taken up are small. or near the seed.

Fix acute deficiencies by foliar can be addressed by foliar applica-
applications. tions. Crops micronutrient requi-
During drought or peak growth pe- rements can be fully met by foliar
riods, temporary Mg or S deficiencies sprays, e.g. in the case of Zn, B or Mn.

Nutrients, when available in insuffi- feed the planet in the decades to
cient quantities, limit crop yield. To come. This includes more balanced
produce enough food to meet the fertilization, including the appropriate
rising food, feed, fibre and bioenergy use of secondary and micronutrients.
requirements of a fast growing and
wealthier world population, while More recently, fertilization has been
reducing agricultures footprint on used to address micronutrient defi-
the environment, it is essential to ciencies in both animals and humans.
enhance nutrient management. Ni- As far as zinc (Zn) is concerned, the
trogen is the most limiting nutrient proportion of people at risk of Zn mal-
globally. In absence of fertilizers, nourishment, while varying regionally,
especially N fertilizers, it is estimat- is estimated at 21% globally (Hotz and
ed that we would be able to produce Brown, 2004). Where low Zn levels in
only half of todays world food output soils are at the origin of deficiencies in
(Erisman et al., 2008). With the worlds humans, fertilization interventions pro-
population expected to exceed 9 bil- vide interesting options for increasing
lion by 2050, coupled with a steady both crop yield and Zn density in grain,
shift to more livestock products in thus enhancing the Zn intake of popu-
diets, the efficient and effective use lations that grow crops on those soils
of fertilizers will play a key role to (Details on

Many factors contribute to soil Fertilizer use can have positive effects
quality or health. A key proper- on soil health when best management
ty of soil health is the ability of practices are implemented, while
the soil to provide all essential fertilizer misuse can negatively
nutrients in adequate amounts impact some soil properties. De-
and proportions for plant growth, pending on the tillage system used,
often defined as soil fertility. regular additions of fertilizer can
Soil fertility is maintained by enhance SOM levels by stimula
adding nutrient inputs that off- ting root and crop residue produc-
set nutrient exports and losses. tion. There is debate regarding the
Physical factors such as texture impact of mineral fertilizer use on
and structure are also important SOM under tropical agro-ecological
components of soil quality. While conditions, and whether it would sti
human interventions can alter mulate organic matter turnover and
soil structure, texture is large- thus lead to faster SOM breakdown.
ly unchangeable. The key factor However, analysis of long-term ex-
for soil quality is the soil orga periments from all over the world
nic matter (SOM) fraction, which shows that adequate and balanced
although relatively small, has a use of mineral fertilizers results in
strong influence on soil structure an increase in SOM as compared to
and the overall health of the soil plots receiving no fertilizers.
and its beneficial functions.
If the wrong fertilizer product or
Soil organic matter controls soil blend is used, e.g. by applying an im-
microbial populations and their proper balance between N and the
many functions in soil such as or- other essential nutrients, it can affect
ganic matter decomposition and soil health negatively through faster
nutrient cycling. Organic matter depletion of non-added nu trients.
can help increase soil aggregate With some fertilizer products, there
stability and thus contribute to is also a risk of acidifying soils; this
enhanced water infiltration and may be beneficial for alkaline/calca
retention, with associated im- reous soils, but may be detrimental
proved resilience to erosion and to soils with a low pH if no lime is
soil degradation. applied to offset the acidifying effect.

The effects of fertilizer on soil mi- levels return to normal. Long-term
crobial populations depend on the experiments show that long-term
nutrient source, the application rate use of fertilizers generally leads to
and method, soil pH and the time- increases in soil microbial biomass
frame considered. Negative effects (with a possible shift in microbial
are often localized and short-lived. diversity), and microbial activity is
For instance, next to fertilizer gra generally further enhanced by inte-
nules, total microbial activity may be grated use of organic amendments
reduced for a few weeks, after which along with mineral fertilizers.

Soil microbial biomass in treatments with (+N) and without (-N) N fertilization.
Unweighted averages are based on analysis of 107 data sets from 64 non-lowland rice long-term
experiments from all over the world (adapted from Geiseller and Scow, 2014).

Fertilizer best management practi water efficiently. Improvements in
ces can enhance water productivity, agronomic practices are essential
just as an adequate water supply is a for increasing agricultural output
requirement for improved nutrient use per unit of land, water and nutrients,
efficiency. Often, water and nutrient which contributes to sustainable
management are addressed sepa- agricultural intensification.
rately, although they are intimately
linked. Improvements in nutrient use The influence of nutrients on yield
efficiency should not be viewed only depends on available water, and
as a fertilizer management issue. there is often a positive interaction
The same is true for water. between these two components,
and their relative importance va
Water stress hinders the transport ries depending on the degree of
of nutrients from the soil to the stress imposed by each factor. Of-
crops roots, as well as the chemi- ten, interactions between nutrients
cal and biological processes in the and water have a greater impact on
soils, required for optimal nutrient yield than the impact of each fac-
uptake by plants. Nutrient deficien- tor separately. Hence, these two
cies reduce root development and, factors should be addressed in an
in turn, the ability of crops to use integrated way.

By managing nutrients efficiently truction of carbon sinks. By boosting
and effectively, farmers can: yields, fertilizers have the potential to
prevent expansion of cropping into
improve adaptation to climate
sensitive areas and related greenhouse
gas emissions and biodiversity losses.
prevent further expansion of crop-
ping into sensitive valuable habitats; When N fertilizer is applied, part of it
reduce nitrous oxide (N2O) emission is taken up by crops, part remains in
intensities; and the soil, some of which is incorpora
ted into soil organic matter, and part
sequester carbon (C) in their soils.
is lost to the environment. One of the
Expansion of agricultural land to fo loss pathways is denitrification, which
rests, pastures or wetlands releases releases both dinitrogen (N2) and N2O.
significant amounts of carbon dioxide Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas
(CO2). Large emissions of CO2 are due with a global warming potential about
to burning of cleared bushes and des 300 times higher than CO2.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Tier-1 method
to calculate direct N2O emissions from managed soils assumes that 1%
of the added N (organic or inorganic) eventually is lost to the environ-
ment as N2O. Even though this method is quite a simplification of rea-
lities, it is based on some extensive data sets, which relate measured
N2O emissions to N inputs. It thus seems difficult to reduce total N2O
emissions if agricultural systems are to be (further) intensified.

Some best management practices (e.g. with nitrification inhibitors), have the
avoid N applications on waterlogged potential to minimize N losses in the
soils, use slow- or controlled-relea form of N2O while improving overall N
se fertilizers or fertilizers stabilized use efficiency and effectiveness.

Several additives and treatments are commercialized to modify availabili-
ty of the nutrients. These include slow-release fertilizers that break down
gradually to release plant available nutrients (e.g. methylene urea), con-
trolled-release fertilizers that are physically encapsulated in a protective
coating (e.g. polymer-coated fertilizers), and stabilized fertilizers that slow
N cycling in the soil (e.g. fertilizers treated with urease and/or nitrification
inhibitors). All these products aim at extending the release of the nutrients
from the fertilizer materials to better match crops requirements.

Mode of action of a coated/encapsulated controlled-release fertilizer

Besides, there is a potential to de-

crease emission intensities, i.e. total
greenhouse gas emissions (in CO2
equivalent) per ton of harvested pro
duct. Even if N2O emission quantities
increase, this rate of increase may
be smaller than the accompanying
increase in crop production, which
- dividing the one by the other -
reduces emission intensities. By
Greenhouse gas emissions (kg CO 2-eq/ha) for
combining a reduction of emission in-
producing 9.25 tons of winter wheat in the
tensities with no or limited expansion United Kingdom under three different N ferti-
of cropping systems, future food lization regimes.
Results based on the Broadbalk experiment at
can be produced with comparably Rothamsted Research, average 1996 to 2000
less greenhouse gas emissions. (Adapted from Brentrup and Pallire, 2008).

Fertilization can increase soil or- varieties, and adoption of good crop
ganic matter (SOM) by stimulating and soil management practices. Cal-
plant and root growth, if crop resi- culations show that C sequestration
dues are left in the field. Because far outweighs emissions associated
soil N and C cycles are closely with the production and use of the ex-
linked, an increased input of C tra fertilizer needed (Vlek et al., 2004).
through residues may tie up soil N,
reducing its availability to plants. Soil management, especially chan
On the other hand, excessive addi- ges in tillage practices, also greatly
tions of N fertilizers may accelerate influences SOM levels. Proper fertili-
decomposition of SOM. Long-term zation practices offer an interesting
experiments from all over the world option for simultaneously seques-
show that adequate and balanced tering C in agricultural soils and
use of mineral fertilizers result in improving soil fertility and, in turn,
an increase in SOM as compared mitigating climate change and im-
to plots receiving no fertilizers. proving food security.
Highest increases in SOM are
generally achieved by integrating Climate change is expected to in-
organic and mineral nutrient sources. crease temperature and water stress.
Nutrient management provides op-
Reforestation can sequester large tions to address some of these stres
quantities of C, especially in deve ses. Phosphate application stimulates
loping countries. The sole option to root growth and, as a result, resilience
liberate the necessary land for C se- to dryness. Cations such as potas
questration without threatening food sium and zinc also improve stress tole
security in those countries is intensi- rance through different mechanisms.
fication of agricultural production on Balanced fertilization is therefore an
some of the best lands by increased important tool available to farmers to
fertilizer inputs, use of improved crop adapt to climate change.

In addition to the global warming po- Taking tradeoffs into account, agro
tential of N2O, nutrient applications nomists are working hard to develop
(from mineral and organic sources) fertilizer BMPs that minimize the overall
can impact the environment in the fol- environmental impact while maximizing
lowing ways: benefits. By developing and dissemina
ting a range of BMPs (in the four areas
Acid deposition from anthropogenic
of nutrient management) that address
emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitro-
the diversity of agro-ecologies and
gen oxides (NOX) and ammonia (NH3);
farming systems, there is still tremen-
Eutrophication of aquatic (and ter- dous scope for increasing efficiency
restrial) systems by increasing N and effectiveness at different scales.
and P flows from agricultural land
to these systems; As an example, the following table illus-
Stratospheric ozone depletion by trates the advantages and limitations
N2O emissions; of selected P fertilizer application
practices, combinations of source
Particulate matter formation following
(S), rate (R), time (T) and place (P)
NH3 emissions;
for the maize-soybean rotation in the
Nitrate (NO3-) accumulation in Lake Erie watershed in North America
groundwater. (Bruulsema et al., 2012).

Minimal soil compaction
S MAP or DAP Risk of elevated P in runoff in
Allows timely planting in spring late fall and winter
R Removal rate for rotation
Lowest-cost fertilizer form Low N use efficiency
T Fall after soy before corn
Low cost of application
P Broadcast
Minimal soil compaction Risk of elevated P in spring run-
Better N use efficiency off before incorporation
R Removal rate for rotation
Low-cost fertilizer form Potential to late planting
T Spring before corn
Low cost of application Retailer spring delivery capacity
P Broadcast

OPTION 3 Cost and practicality of plan-

ting equipment with fertilizer
S MAP or fluid APP Best N efficiency capacity
R Removal rate for crop Low risk of elevated P in runoff Potential to delay planting
T Spring Less soil P stratification Retailer delivery capacity
P Planter band Cost of fluid versus granular P
OPTION 4 Low risk of elevated P in runoff
S MAP or DAP Better N and P efficiency Cost of RTK GPS guidance
R Removal for crop or rotation Maintain some residue cover Cost of new equipment
T Fall after soy before corn Allows timely planting in spring Requires more time than
P Zone placement in bands Less soil P stratification
OPTION 5 Low risk of elevated P in runoff Cost of RTK GPS guidance
S Fluid APP Better N and P efficiency Cost of new equipment
R Removal for crop or rotation Maintain good residue cover Cost of fluid versus granular P
T Fall after soy before corn Allows timely planting in spring Requires more time than
P Point or spoke injection Less soil P stratification broadcast

MAP = Granular monoammonium phosphate

DAP = Granular diammonium phosphate
APP= Fluid ammonium polyphosphate
RTK GPS = Real-time kinematic global positioning system


Essential nutrients are required for growing healthy, productive and nutritious crops.

Agricultural nutrient cycles are open systems with unavoidable losses, which
have negative impacts on crop productivity, farming profitability and envi-
ronmental services. The objective is to reduce those losses while steadily
increasing crop yield. More efficient nutrient use, through adoption of nutrient
best management practices, optimizes benefits and reduces risks associated
with human interference on agricultural nutrient cycles.

A range of fertilizer best management practices is available to farmers. These

practices should address the four areas of nutrient management (source,
rate, time and place) and provide options that meet the diversity of site- and
crop-specific conditions, to improve overall sustainability of cropping systems
considering economic, social and environmental perspectives
(nutrient stewardship approach).

Mineral fertilizers should not be considered in isolation. For optimizing ferti

lizer use sustainability and performance, mineral fertilizer should be combined
with the use of organic nutrient sources, together with the selection of appro-
priate crop varieties and crop, water and soil management practices
(integrated soil fertility management approach).

Beyond food security and farm income, plant nutrient management can influence
a number of sustainability goals such as human nutrition, soil health, water pro-
ductivity, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and environment health as a
whole. When properly managed, nutrients can positively impact these goals.

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