In agriculture, nitrogen plant fertilizer has been essential. This nutrient is one of three—along with phosphorus and potassium—that plants need to live.
The more easily plants can access it, the more ideal the growing conditions and the higher the crop yields. Farmers are well aware of this and regularly add nitrogen to the soil through various methods.
Some of these are organic, like cover crops and fertilizers made from manure, plant waste, and other natural substances. These can be a great way to nourish the soil, but addressing nitrogen deficiency in this way is much slower than adding nitrogen to the soil with non-organic fertilizers.
Inorganic, nitrogen rich fertilizer works quickly, can be dosed out in exact quantities, and is an effective option for boosting crop yields even in areas with poor soil. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers have been such an asset to modern agriculture, it’s estimated that a third of the planet is fed because of their use.
What makes this soil treatment so impactful? It’s all because of a plant’s natural need for nitrogen.
Why Do Plants Need Nitrogen?
Plants need access to nitrogen to grow and carry out many essential metabolic functions. They are dependent on this chemical for photosynthesis and amino acid production, which enables them to build protein and DNA.
In agriculture, nitrogen levels in the soil are of special concern, as nitrogen deficiency will hider crop yields and their nutritional quality. Animals, including humans, also need reliable sources of nitrogen to live.
The only way to get it naturally is through the consumption of plant-based nutrients. Although nitrogen is abundant on Earth, most of it is suspended in the air and cannot be easily absorbed in this state.
Plants are only able to consume nitrogen through the soil as part of the nitrogen cycle. In this cycle, atmospheric nitrogen is broken down when it’s fed on by nitrogen-fixing bacteria. These bacteria are present in the soil and the root systems of some plants.
As the nitrogen is processed, it’s combined with oxygen and hydrogen. Unlike nitrogen in its stable form, nitrogen compounds can be easily absorbed by plants. This natural process has been synthetically reproduced, which has led to the creation of inorganic fertilizers.
Just like organic fertilizers, inorganic fertilizers foster plant growth, but at an industrial scale. High nitrogen fertilizer has been vital to growing crops that feed much of the world, but adding nitrogen to the soil in excess amounts can cause many problems.
Ozone depletion, groundwater pollution, and the destruction of vital ecosystems are just a few of the consequences of introducing too much nitrogen. To balance reliable crop production with pollution reduction, knowing how and when to add nitrogen to the soil is crucial.
When And How To Add Nitrogen To Soil
If a nitrogen deficiency is present, then adding nitrogen-rich matter in an easy-to-break-down form is effective. This can be accomplished with a cover crop or introduction of organic nitrogen-fixers.
However, if nitrogen is added in quantities and at rates that exceed a plant’s ability to absorb it, excess nitrates enter the environment. Nitrates can create toxic circumstances when carried away with soil runoff.
To prevent this issue, better soil testing and more prudent fertilization practices have been increasingly encouraged. Precision agriculture, which utilizes more modern agricultural technology, including surveying drones, digital soil maps, and more advanced vegetative index analysis, could help as well.
This is because precision agriculture carefully pairs data with farming practices to prevent many of the environmentally destructive aspects of crop growth, but in a way that also optimizes production. It could be one of the better tools for addressing problems of nitrogen depletion, excess, and the effects of both.