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Utilisation of Nitrogen and Phosphate on Dairy Farms Could be Increased

03 December 2013

Fertilsing grassland could be a great deal more efficient thanks to Wageningen University researchers who have conducted environmental studies at the De Marke dairy research farm.

A project between two PhD students has increased nitrogen utilisation to 40 per cent and phosphorous to over 80 per cent. This, Wageningen scientists claim, is well above the 34 per cent phosphorous efficiency seen in the 1980s. 

The 'Cattle and Opportunities' project (Koeien and Kansen) has shown how fertilsers can be used more efficiently, without limiting yield.

Solving a Problem

During the 1980s, dairy farms used 568 and 50 kg per acre of the fertilisers nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) respectively, write Wageningen researchers.

The fertilisers were applied to the land in the form of cow manure or artificial fertilisers. The amount of fertiliser leaving the soil via milk and meat was 81 kg for nitrogen (14 per cent ), and 17 kg for phosphorous (34 per cent ).

The enormous discrepancy, i.e. 487 kg of nitrogen and 33 kg of phosphorous per acre, simply disappeared into the environment. This did not only jeopardise ground and surface water, but also constituted a huge waste of minerals, an expensive commodity.

Regular Adjustment of Business Practices

The researchers devised business practices over an extended period from 2000 to 2011, regularly adjusting them after evaluations. They considered the entire cycle whereby cattle produce manure, which is then incorporated into the soil, absorbed by crops and fed back to the animals via feed.

In this respect, minerals leave the cycle via meat and milk, as well as via fertilisers. Minerals enter the cycle through extra roughage and concentrate fed to the cattle, and artificial fertilisers applied to fields and pastures. One of the unwanted side effects is minerals leaving the cycle via groundwater or the soil in the form of ammonia, phosphate, nitrate and laughing gas, for example.

Cow's Manure Instead of Artificial Fertilisers

The researchers put certain measures in place along the way, in an effort to keep unwanted mineral wastage to a minimum. They used increasing amounts of their own manure instead of artificial fertilisers, kept fewer calves on the farm and allowed the cattle to graze for shorter periods.

The dairy stock was fed less concentrate and the maize harvest was followed by a so-called catch crop, aimed at enabling crops to continue absorbing nitrogen and phosphate through the winter months. Fertilising with nitrogen-based artificial fertilisers was stopped altogether. The most recent measure concerned refining the manure.

De Marke managed to produce grass and maize using a much lower supply of artificial fertiliser. Mineral utilisation (which is where it all began) rose to 43 per cent for nitrogen, a significant rise compared to statistics from the 1980s, when the national average was just 14 per cent .

Koeien & Kansen Project

The experiences and results of these changes to farming practices were shared by the sixteen dairy farmers taking part and passed to their colleagues elsewhere in the country. In this way, the Koeien & Kansen project serves as a bridge between theory and practice in the chain of research and knowledge dispersal. According to the researchers, individual farms must consider their own situation before deciding on the best way to improve efficiency.

Remarkable Progress

During the project, the efficiency of nitrogen utilisation of the sixteen dairy concerns taking part in Koeien & Kansen rose to 40 per cent . The efficiency of phosphorous utilisation for these farms is now above 80 per cent , compared with a national average of just 34 per cent in the 1980s; the soil P balance is almost zero. This is a remarkable achievement demonstrating significant progress. A further challenge for the future is to reduce greenhouse emissions by, for example, improving the quality of animal feed.

Sixteen farming concerns took part in this research at De Marke, which was headed by researchers Koos Verloop and Jouke Oenema, both working for Plant Research International, part of Wageningen UR. They will each be awarded a PhD this month by Prof. Martin van Ittersum, Professor of Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University.

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