Biology

Dr. Finney Part of Team That Wins Grant to Develop Nitrogen Fertilizer Decision Tool for Organic Farmers

Dr. Denise Finney, Assistant Professor of Biology, is part of a research team that recently received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to perfect a tool they developed to help organic corn producers decide how much nitrogen — as fertilizer or manure — to apply to their crop fields.

The team, led by researchers from Penn State University, will use the funding to expand testing of their decision-support tool to farm fields with a wide variety of soil types across Pennsylvania. The online tool predicts corn yield based on the amount of nitrogen that is slowly released from the soil and decomposing cover crops. Using site-specific information, the tool calculates the amount of nitrogen needed to supplement the existing soil fertility and to achieve a goal for corn yield.

One of the central challenges that farmers face is deciding which nutrient sources to use and how much to apply to their fields, project leader Dr. Jason Kaye noted. “Fertilizers and manures provide essential nutrients for healthy crops and can increase yields and profits, and nitrogen is an important plant nutrient and component of most nutrient sources used on organic farms,” he said. “Too little nitrogen stunts crop growth, but too much can cause excessive weed pressure and nitrogen losses to the environment.” Excess nitrogen in drinking water can make it unsafe for human consumption, and excess nitrogen in lakes and streams can be detrimental to aquatic life and human recreation.

Some farmers grow cover crops from fall to spring, and as these plants decompose, they can be a source of nitrogen for the following crop. However, this existing fertility depends on soil and cover crop characteristics specific to each farm field. Dr. Finney’s lab will conduct investigations on factors that influence the rate at which soil organisms break down and release nitrogen from cover crops and manure. These and other laboratory studies will help the team predict the conditions under which their tool will work well. The researchers will also work with a small group of farmers to test the tool on their fields to make sure it is easy to use and helpful in making fertilizer decisions.

Researchers plan to engage in several outreach activities to introduce their tool to farmers and other agricultural professionals. Such activities will include meetings with grower networks, workshops and on-farm field days. The scientists also will update the Pennsylvania Agronomy Guide and Pennsylvania Organic Crop Production Guide and will produce materials such as fact sheets to facilitate the use of the nitrogen decision-support tool.