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Optimizing the nitrogen application rate for maize and wheat based on yield and environment on the Northern China Plain

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posted on 2023-05-03, 12:57 authored by Yitao Zhang, Hongyuan Wang, Qiuliang Lei, Jiafa LuoJiafa Luo, Stuart LindseyStuart Lindsey, Jizong Zhang, Limei Zhai, Shuxia Wu, Jingsuo Zhang, Xiaoxia Liu, Tianzhi Ren, Hongbin Liu
Optimizing the nitrogen (N) application rate can increase crop yield while reducing the environmental risks. However, the optimal N rates vary substantially when different targets such as maximum yield or maximum economic benefit are considered. Taking the wheat-maize rotation cropping system on the North China Plain as a case study, we quantified the variation of N application rates when targeting constraints on yield, economic performance, N uptake and N utilization, by conducting field experiments between 2011 and 2013. Results showed that the optimal N application rate was highest when targeting N uptake (240 kg ha− 1 for maize, and 326 kg ha− 1 for wheat), followed by crop yield (208 kg ha− 1 for maize, and 277 kg ha− 1 for wheat) and economic income (191 kg ha− 1 for maize, and 253 kg ha− 1 for wheat). If environmental costs were considered, the optimal N application rates were further reduced by 20–30% compared to those when targeting maximum economic income. However, the optimal N rate, with environmental cost included, may result in soil nutrient mining under maize, and an extra input of 43 kg N ha− 1 was needed to make the soil N balanced and maintain soil fertility in the long term. To obtain a win-win situation for both yield and environment, the optimal N rate should be controlled at 179 kg ha− 1 for maize, which could achieve above 99.5% of maximum yield and have a favorable N balance, and at 202 kg ha− 1 for wheat to achieve 97.4% of maximum yield, which was about 20 kg N ha− 1 higher than that when N surplus was nil. Although these optimal N rates vary on spatial and temporal scales, they are still effective for the North China Plain where 32% of China's total maize and 45% of China's total wheat are produced. More experiments are still needed to determine the optimal N application rates in other regions. Use of these different optimal N rates would contribute to improving the sustainability of agricultural development in China.


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Journal title

Science of the Total Environment




Zhang, Y., Wang, H., Lei, Q., Luo, J., Lindsey, S., Zhang, J., … Liu, H. (2017). Optimizing the nitrogen application rate for maize and wheat based on yield and environment on the Northern China Plain. Science of the Total Environment, 618, 1173-1183. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.09.183

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