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RESEARCH ARTICLE

Nitrogen performance indicators for dairy production systems

Cecile A. M. de Klein A F , Ross M. Monaghan A , Marta Alfaro B , Cameron J. P. Gourley C , Oene Oenema D and J. Mark Powell E
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A AgResearch Invermay, Puddle Alley, Mosgiel 9053, New Zealand.

B Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias (INIA), Centro Regional de Investigación Remehue, Casilla 24-O, Osorno, Chile.

C Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, 1301 Hazeldean Road, Ellinbank, Vic. 3821, Australia.

D Wageningen University, Alterra, PO Box 47, NL-6700 Wageningen, The Netherlands.

E USDA-Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Dairy Forage Research Center, Madison, WI 53706, USA.

F Corresponding author. Email: cecile.deklein@agresearch.co.nz

Soil Research 55(6) 479-488 https://doi.org/10.1071/SR16349
Submitted: 20 January 2017  Accepted: 25 May 2017   Published: 7 August 2017

Abstract

Nitrogen (N) is invaluable for maintaining agricultural production, but its use, and particularly inefficient use, can lead to environmental losses. This paper reviews N use efficiency (NUE) and N surplus indicators for dairy production systems to assess their utility for optimising N use outcomes and minimising environmental N losses. Using case-study examples, we also assess realistic goals for these indicators and discuss key issues associated with their use. Published whole-farm NUE and whole-farm N surplus values ranged within 10–65% and 40–700 kg N ha–1 year–1 respectively. In a study of five catchments across New Zealand, whole-farm NUE was more strongly affected by catchment differences in soil and climatic conditions than by differences in management. In contrast, whole-farm N surplus differed both between- and within-catchments and was a good indicator of N losses to water. Realistic goals for both NUE and N surplus thus depend on the agro-climatic context of the dairy system and on its economic and environmental goals. Crop and animal NUE values can be valuable indicators for optimising fertiliser and feed use and minimising N losses. However, global or national whole-farm NUE values appear of limited value if the ultimate goal for setting targets is to reduce the environmental impact of N use; whole-farm level targets based on N surplus would be a more useful indicator for this purpose. Our review also reinforces the importance of standardising the variables that should be used to estimate NUE and N surplus values, to ensure equitable comparisons between different systems. Finally, NUE and N surplus targets should also be set in the context of other agro-environmental considerations.

Additional keywords: animal NUE, crop NUE, dairy systems, nitrogen use efficiency (NUE), whole-farm NUE.


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