Economic Tidbits

Nebraska Fertilizer Use

Inorganic fertilizers are a critical input into corn production. Partly because of their use, corn production in Nebraska has grown from 200 million bushels in the mid-1950s to over 1.8 billion bushels today. What are the trends regarding fertilizer use in Nebraska? A CropWatch article by Richard Ferguson, Bijesh Maharjan, and Javed Iqbal with the UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources explores use trends in the state.

Figure 3 shows annual nitrogen fertilizer consumption from 1955-2023. Consumption of nitrogen grew from around 47,000 tons in 1955 to peak at over 960,000 tons in 2019. However, since 1980, the rate of growth in fertilizer use has slowed. Moreover, the kinds of fertilizers used have changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, fertilizer use was dominated by anhydrous ammonia. Over 75 percent of the total nitrogen sold in 1968 was anhydrous ammonia. In the 1980s the use of urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) solutions began to grow. Today UAN is the most prevalent form of fertilizer in use. Fifty-seven percent of nitrogen consumed in 2022 was UAN while anhydrous amounted to 23 percent.

FIGURE 3. FERTILIZER NITROGEN CONSUMPTION IN NEBRASKA, 1955-2023

Source: Richard Ferguson, Bijesh Maharjan, and Javed Iqbal, Nitrogen Fertilizer Trends in Nebraska 1955-2023, CropWatch, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska, April 16, 2024.

Fergusen et al. write that the efficiency of nitrogen use—the amount of nitrogen used to produce a bushel of corn—increased over time too (Figure 4). Fertilizer efficiency in 1965 was around 1.6 to 1.7 pounds of fertilizer per bushel of corn. In 2022, the ratio had shrunk to 0.8 to 0.9, meaning it took less fertilizer to produce a bushel of corn. Many factors underline this trend. Genetic advances, improvement in production practices, growing awareness of the environmental risks of excess nitrogen application, and regulatory requirements all played a role. And the improvement in efficiency is consistent across the state, there is little variation between regions.

However, the gains in efficiency have stalled over the past two decades (the green circle in Figure 4). And, given the hikes in fertilizer prices in recent years, producers would certainly have had incentive to improve efficiency if possible. Fergusen et al. suggest the lack of improvement might mean current nitrogen management practices have reached their peak in terms of efficiency. Practices like in-season applications, sensor-based fertigation, or others may need to be adopted to see efficiency improve once again.

FIGURE 4. FERTILIZER NITROGEN USE EFFICIENCY FOR CORN, 1965-2022

Source: Richard Ferguson, Bijesh Maharjan, and Javed Iqbal, Nitrogen Fertilizer Trends in Nebraska 1955-2023, CropWatch, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Nebraska, April 16, 2024.

You may also like