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Optimizing nitrogen rates in the midwestern United States for maximum ecosystem value

Patrick M Ewing, University of Minnesota, Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics
Bryan C Runck, University of Minnesota, Department of Geography, Environment and Society


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The importance of corn production to the midwestern United States cannot be overestimated. However, high production requires high nitrogen fertilization, which carries costs to environmental services such as water quality. Therefore, a trade-off exists between the production of corn yield and water quality. We used the Groundwater Vulnerability Assessment for Shallow depths and Crop Environment Resource Synthesis-Maize models to investigate the nature of this trade-off while testing the Simple Analytic Framework trade-offs featured in this Special Feature. First, we estimated the current levels of yield and water quality production in northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota at the 1-square-kilometer, county, and regional scales. We then constructed an efficiency frontier from optimized nitrogen application patterns to maximize the production of both yield and water quality. Results highlight the context dependency of this trade-off, but show room for increasing the production of both services to the benefit of all stakeholders. We discuss these results in the context of spatial scale, biophysical limitations to the production of services, and stakeholder outcomes given disparate power balances and biophysical contexts.

Key words

agriculture; agroecology; corn belt; DSSAT; fertilization rate; frontier analysis; groundwater nitrate; GWAVA-S; land use; nitrogen; rotation; row crops; Simple Analytics Framework; yield

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087