Applying Precision Fertilization Tools for Crop Production Optimization

Dr. Norman Borlaug was an American agronomist and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize recipient who developed high-yielding varieties of wheat that were credited with preventing the starvation of millions of people in Pakistan and India in the 1960s. 

Dr. Borlaug, often referred to as “the Father of the Green Revolution” once said, “Civilization, as it is known today, could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply.” Globally, agricultural land represents 36% of the global land surface and only one-third of this is used as cropland.

The United Nations estimates that the global population in 2020 was just under 8 billion and is expected to rise to close to 10 billion by 2050. The continuous population growth has been met with a fixed, if not decreasing, area of cropland, creating a bottleneck. This bottleneck is one that will determine the trajectory of civilization, as crops are produced for food, fuel, and fiber, all of which are vital. 

To ensure the success of civilization now and long term, precision agriculture will be essential to maximize productivity. 

This population and available cropland bottleneck has also had a drastic effect on global ecosystems. Globally, agriculture emissions have increased by 30% over the last four decades, signifying that we are not only in a critical need of increased productivity but also increased sustainability. One area of agriculture that can begin to address these concerns is precision fertilization. 

What are precision fertilization tools?

Precision fertilization dates back to the 1990s and originally focused on fertilization methods, species, and application rates that were tailored to the specific environment of the crop. This required growers to take into account the soil type, weather conditions, crop needs, etc., and determine a customized fertilization approach, compared to the previously used single recommendation for an entire field. 

Nowadays, growers have access to even more detailed information regarding the soil conditions (physical, chemical, and biological), climatic information (precipitation, temperature, etc.), and crop needs (plant nutrients, such as N, P, and K), as well as more advanced technology and machinery. 

Given the available information today, precision fertilization tools can be used to help growers apply not only the right nutrient types needed but also the right amount at the right time.

With the abundance of data that can be measured in an environment, the diversity of crops that are grown globally, and the wide range of climates that growers deal with, advanced fertilization tools can be used to optimize crop production. By customizing fertilizer application precisely, input costs and carbon footprint are reduced, productivity and profits are increased, and it ultimately protects and preserves our ecosystem. 

Benefits of Precision Fertilization

While precision fertilization approaches will vary due to environment and crop needs, there are numerous benefits that have been tied to its application. Growers can anticipate lower carbon footprints and reduced input costs, increased productivity and profits, and overall more sustainable cropping systems, both locally and globally.  

Lower carbon footprint 

According to an UN-backed study, over a third of global greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity can be attributed to the food system, starting with how food is produced.

A large contributor to these emissions is nitrogen fertilizer. By only applying the amount of nitrogen that is needed for a particular crop in a given field, growers can apply fertilizers more efficiently and possibly even reduce the amount overall. While agriculture is not the only industry that plays a role in emission reduction, data-driven approaches could minimize future negative impact. 

Reduced input costs

One of the largest input costs for growers is the fertilization of their crops, and 2020 and 2021 have brought a dramatic increase in fertilizer prices, resulting in an even larger financial burden for them. 

Understanding the spatial variability of a field, its soil properties, and the essential nutrients for the crop being grown can help farmers identify where less fertilizer may be needed, or if there are specific times it should be applied. By being strategic with application to minimize unused or leached nutrients, less fertilizer will need to be purchased.  

Increased productivity

The purpose of fertilizing crops is to provide them with nutrients that are lacking in the soil, but necessary for the plant to grow and thrive. Each crop has a different ratio of nutrients that are needed for growth and each area of cropland has a different soil composition. 

A cropland’s soil nutrient levels are affected by the cropping history, topography, soil type, weather, etc. By customizing fertilization, you’re able to meet crop requirements more efficiently and increase productivity, or yields.

Higher profits

As technology and management techniques continue to improve, so do the economics of precision farming. Increased yield and productivity coupled with reduced input costs can result in greater profits for growers. 

Sustainability

Two key performance indicators, or KPIs, to assess the sustainability of a cropping system are nitrogen leaching and carbon footprint. Nitrogen is one of the essential macronutrients for plant function, making it a commonly added fertilizer to many crop fields. 

Nitrogen leaching occurs when the amount of soil water exceeds the soil water holding capacity, causing excess water, and any soluble nitrogen, to drain through the soil, rendering it nearly useless to the crop, and harmful to the environment.

Nitrogen leaching can contaminate drinking water and other bodies of water that affect fish populations and overall water quality. By reducing nitrogen leaching and the carbon footprint of agricultural practices, we can minimize pollution and help the ecosystem remain productive over time. 

Best Uses for Precision Fertilization Tools 

Precision fertilization tools allow for variable rates of fertilizer application based on the crop nutrient needs, climatic stress, soil fertility, and topography, among other factors. With precision technology, the decisions come down to the 4 Rs: right place, right rate, right time, and right source. 

Utilizing GPS-guided application equipment to be able to geo-reference fertilization application points will help avoid overlaps and mistakes. With the proper equipment and advanced fertilization tools, variable rates of fertilizer can be easily administered at specific times, depending on the nutrient source. 

These management decisions are important individually, but the combination of the 4 Rs is crucial. The collection and analysis of field-specific data will help growers figure out how to manage their fields, but this is often timely and requires specific expertise in agronomics, agroecology, and soil science. To assist with these vital, but sometimes intimidating decisions, Agmatix, a global agro informatics company has developed smart fertilizer software that will provide you with the necessary information. 

Agmatix’s digital solutions for fertilization planning 

Agmatix’s Digital Crop Advisor is a smart fertilizer software that equips agriculture professionals with scientific-based results focusing on crop nutrition management. This easy-to-use customized fertilization planning tool helps generate crop nutrition optimization plans, monitor sustainability KPIs, offers support for any lab analysis, and more. 

Our Digital Crop Advisor is able to standardize field measurements and has multi-language support available, making this an essential tool for any global research team. With access to a rich database of different crops, crop essential nutrients, and soil data, Agmatix can help generate the best fertilization plan for your field to maximize productivity now and moving forward.