Now You Know: The value of fertilizer

Tuesday, April 26, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:23 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

What was learned: MU researchers are using sensors called light emitting diodes to measure the color of young corn plants to determine the correct amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed by each plant. Researchers are in the second year of testing the new technology.

What is being done: Researchers applied a generous amount of nitrogen to one area of a field and, using the LEDs attached to a fertilizer applicator, measured the amount of light reflected from small plants in this area. The computer-equipped applicator then applied variable levels of nitrogen to the rest of the field, depending on the amount of light reflected by the other corn leaves.

“The idea is to cut back in smart places,” Peter Scharf, MU nutrient management specialist, said in a release from the MU News Bureau. “This technology allows us to diagnose how much fertilizer is needed better than we could with a previously used method.”

Why it matters: Using an incorrect amount of fertilizer has costly effects in both economic and environmental situations.

Using too much nitrogen fertilizer can contribute to water quality problems when nitrogen runoff creates “dead zones.”

“Dead zones” occur when nutrients from the fertilizer promote growth of plankton, which decay and consume oxygen.

Low oxygen levels, known as hypoxia, can kill bottom-dwelling creatures, many on which the seafood industry relies.

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