It's summer. For many of us, summer is a time synonymous with fresh corn, one of the major field crops produced in the United States.
In 2011, corn was planted on more than 92 million acres in the U.S., helping the nation continue its trend as the world's largest exporter of the crop.
Corn is a nitrogen-loving plant. To achieve desired production levels, most U.S. farmers apply synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to their fields every year.
Once nitrogen fertilizer hits the ground, however, it's hard to contain and is easily lost to groundwater, rivers, oceans and the atmosphere.
"That's not good for the crops, the farmers or the environment," says Phil Robertson, a scientist at Michigan State University and principal investigator at the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site.
KBS is one of 26 such NSF LTER sites across the United States and around the globe in ecosystems from forests to coral reefs.
Nitrogen lost to the environment from agricultural fields is nitrogen not used by crops, Robertson says. "This costs farmers money and degrades water and air quality, with significant health, biodiversity and downstream economic effects."
Farmers already manage fertilizer to avoid large losses. But, to reduce losses further, it currently costs more money than the fertilizer saves.
Robertson and colleagues are working on a way to help make the time and expense of efforts to mitigate fertilizer loss worthwhile. They're putting the finishing touches on a program that would pay farmers to apply less nitrogen fertilizer in a way that doesn't jeopardize yields. The program, called the nitrous oxide greenhouse gas reduction methodology, is being conducted in partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute.
"This project is a great example of how long-term, fundamental research can contribute practical solutions to import
|Contact: Cheryl Dybas|
National Science Foundation