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J Environ Manage. 2018 May 1;213:341-352. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2018.02.062.

Exploring the effects of nitrogen fertilization management alternatives on nitrate loss and crop yields in tile-drained fields in Illinois.

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Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.
Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL 61801, USA. Electronic address:


It is vital to manage the excessive use of nitrogen (N) fertilizer in corn production, the single largest consumer of N fertilizer in the United States, in order to achieve more sustainable agroecosystems. This study comprehensively explored the effects of N fertilization alternatives on nitrate loss and crop yields using the Root Zone Water Quality Model (RZWQM) in tile-drained fields in central Illinois. The RZWQM was tested for the prediction of tile flow, nitrate loss, and crop yields using eight years (1993-2000) of observed data and showed satisfactory model performances from statistical and graphical evaluations. Our model simulations demonstrated the maximum return to nitrogen (MRTN) rate (193 kgha-1), a newly advised N recommendation by the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (INLRS), can be further reduced. Nitrate loss was reduced by 10.3% and 29.8%, but corn yields decreased by 0.3% and 1.9% at 156 and 150 kgha-1 of N fertilizer rate in the study sites A and E, respectively. Although adjustment of N fertilization timing presented a further reduction in nitrate loss, there was no optimal timing to ensure nitrate loss reduction and corn productivity. For site A, 100% spring application was the most productive and 40% fall, 10% pre-plant, and 50% side dress application generated the lowest nitrate loss. For site E, the conventional N application timing was verified as the best practice in both corn production and nitrate loss reduction. Compared to surface broadcast placement, injected N fertilizer in spring increased corn yield, but may also escalate nitrate loss. This study presented the need of an adaptive N fertilizer management due to the heterogeneity in agricultural systems, and raised the importance of timing and placement of N fertilizer, as well as further reduction in fertilizer rate to devise a better in-field N management practice.


Best management practices; DSSAT; Maximum return to nitrogen; Nitrate loss; RZWQM; Tile flow

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