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Real-time in situ sensing of soil nitrogen status to promote enhanced nitrogen use efficiency in agricultural systems

Posted by | February 21, 2021

Principal investigators: Anthony John Miller

Associated with: 

  • John Innes Centre, United Kingdom (Lead Research Organisation)
  • Natural Environment Research Council, Swindon (Co-funder)

Project Summary:

The inefficient use of nitrogen (N) within agricultural systems is almost ubiquitous with typically only 50% of the N applied to the land subsequently recovered in the crop. This gross inefficiency is largely caused by the poor spatial and temporal targeting of fertiliser N relative to crop N demand, leading to a major loss of N to freshwater, groundwater and the atmosphere (via leaching, surface runoff or gaseous emissions). This diffuse pollution has a major environmental impact as well as a producing significant social (including human health) and indirect economic cost. One of the biggest challenges facing the agricultural industry is therefore finding new ways to optimise the use of N fertiliser to both reduce costs and improve sustainability. In response to this challenge, and in direct alignment with both the strategic objectives of the SARIC programme and those of RCUK (2016), we describe a new integrated precision agriculture approach to achieve this goal. Our aim is to combine the power of new soil-based in situ N sensors with mathematical models, spatial statistics and existing canopy N sensors to develop new decision support tools to allow farmers and their advisors to decide when and where to apply N. A range of key industry partners have joined this project consortium to demonstrate how soil and canopy sensors can be deployed in arable and grassland systems for measurement of soil and crop N status. Geo-statistical methods will be used to show the optimal deployment of these sensors. This information will feed into new mechanistic models which will be used to predict crop N demand. Together with our industry partners, we will explore via workshops and outreach activities how these new technologies can improve current fertiliser management and guidelines through enhanced industry-focused decision support tools.

RCUK (2016) A vision and high-level strategy for UK animal and plant health research to 2020 and beyond. BBSRC, ESRC, NERC, HM Government.