Exploring the effects of nitrogen fertilization management alternatives on nitrate loss and crop yields in tile-drained fields in Illinois

Hanseok Jeong, Rabin Bhattarai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It is vital to manage the excessive use of nitrogen (N) fertilizer in corn production, the single largest consumer of N fertilizer in the United States, in order to achieve more sustainable agroecosystems. This study comprehensively explored the effects of N fertilization alternatives on nitrate loss and crop yields using the Root Zone Water Quality Model (RZWQM) in tile-drained fields in central Illinois. The RZWQM was tested for the prediction of tile flow, nitrate loss, and crop yields using eight years (1993–2000) of observed data and showed satisfactory model performances from statistical and graphical evaluations. Our model simulations demonstrated the maximum return to nitrogen (MRTN) rate (193 kgha−1), a newly advised N recommendation by the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (INLRS), can be further reduced. Nitrate loss was reduced by 10.3% and 29.8%, but corn yields decreased by 0.3% and 1.9% at 156 and 150 kgha−1 of N fertilizer rate in the study sites A and E, respectively. Although adjustment of N fertilization timing presented a further reduction in nitrate loss, there was no optimal timing to ensure nitrate loss reduction and corn productivity. For site A, 100% spring application was the most productive and 40% fall, 10% pre-plant, and 50% side dress application generated the lowest nitrate loss. For site E, the conventional N application timing was verified as the best practice in both corn production and nitrate loss reduction. Compared to surface broadcast placement, injected N fertilizer in spring increased corn yield, but may also escalate nitrate loss. This study presented the need of an adaptive N fertilizer management due to the heterogeneity in agricultural systems, and raised the importance of timing and placement of N fertilizer, as well as further reduction in fertilizer rate to devise a better in-field N management practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)341-352
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
StatePublished - May 1 2018


  • Best management practices
  • Maximum return to nitrogen
  • Nitrate loss
  • Tile flow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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