Matt Culley reflects on efficient use of artificial nitrogen

11 December 2020

NFU crops board chairman Matt Culley takes a look at the use of nitrogen within wheat rotations and the growing pressure on farmers to improve productivity and manage key resources. He also shares some insight into what he is doing on his own farm. 

The pressure being put on farmers and growers around nitrogen use is growing. It’s an expensive product – one of the most expensive inputs for wheat – so it’s in our best interest to use it as efficiently as possible. Even aside from the financial implications, nitrogen use is something Defra is looking at closely which we can see with its current consultation on urea. But if we want to improve our productivity, as well as maintaining access to key products, as an industry we need to understand where we sit in terms of efficiency, to what extent we are building fertiliser use into our net zero ambitions and how it fits into the overall sustainability of the arable sector.

We know that as in industry we are becoming more efficient, but for us to be able to understand how much and to be able to demonstrate it we need data. Now, I think many of you will agree with me that for too many years we have had too little usable data, and that needs to change. We need accurate key performance indicators so we can effectively analyse and measure input performance, and even before that we need to establish a baseline from which these performance indicators can be developed and measured.

And that is where you come in

The NFU launched a Nitrogen Use Efficiency survey which we asked growers to fill in so we can collect the data needed to establish this baseline to build from. it really is important that we get a starting point so we can show what is already being achieved on farm and demonstrate that efficient use of nitrogen can be a big part of increasing productivity as well as hitting the government’s clean air targets.


What is Matt doing on his farm to improve nitrogen use efficiency?

On our farms we have been trying to address our input efficiencies by the use of organic manures in the forms of liquid and solid digestate when and wherever possible. This has improved the health of our soils which is now allowing us to bring direct drilling into our rotation, and with the planned use of cover crops should increase the nutrient holding capacity of the soil. The switch to liquid fertiliser, applied through our sprayer equipped with single section auto shut off with field mapping, has helped massively in our drive for increased accuracy of nitrogen application. The use of liquid fertiliser also gives us the ability to add urease inhibitors in warm conditions directly at the time of application if required.

We also want to look at growing different varieties of wheat to help with our nitrogen use efficiency, and wheat such as the Nelson variety, grown for specific markets, could have a real impact as they require fewer inputs in terms of fungicides and nitrogen. Although lower yielding than our tried and tested group for wheat, the hope is that we can achieve the same gross margin through dedicated supply contracts and premiums for dedicated high protein varieties such as the German E grade Nelson.

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