Simplifying residual nitrogen (Nmin) sampling strategies and crop response

Paul Heinemann, Urs Schmidhalter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Globally, important nitrogen fertilizer decisions are often made at the early stages of plant development, when plants are not yet sufficiently indicative of their needs. Optimizing nitrogen fertilization of crops requires assessing the available soil mineral nitrogen content (Nmin) at the beginning of the season and was assessed exemplarily for wheat and maize. Since 2020 a mandatory soil Nmin analysis for each crop on a representative field is required in Germany in zones characterized by increased nitrate concentrations in the groundwater, encompassing approximately 28 % of the arable land. However, soil analysis is time-consuming, costly, and labor-intensive and requires further optimization beyond the current practice. In this study, wheat fields in 2018 and 2019 and maize fields in 2018 were sampled in a grid pattern in spring, and the soil nitrate-N content was determined in 30 cm layers down to 60 cm soil depth in 11 fields and further down to 90 cm soil depth in two of the fields. For each single and the combined soil depths, all fields could be sampled with a deviation of less than 10 kg nitrate-N ha−1 with only two soil samples. Overall, the reduced field-specific soil sampling strategy proved advantageous compared to crop-specific, regionally representative Nmin values offered by the official advisory authorities based on multiple averaged field investigations with an increased sampling intensity of 16 samples per field. Further, the reduced field-specific soil sampling strategy delivered more precise Nmin values by 11.2 kg nitrate-N ha−1 for wheat fields and slightly less precise values by 4.8 kg nitrate-N ha−1 for maize fields. The reduced field-specific soil sampling has great potential to reduce analysis and soil sampling costs. Nitrogen fertilization experiments supported the usefulness of the new simplified Nmin strategy. Multispectral in-season satellite imagery from Sentinel-2 could not adequately capture the spatial nitrate-N level differences and confirms soil samplings needs early in the season. Because most farmers base their fertilization strategy on regionally crop-specific aggregated Nmin values delivered by the official advisory system, we consider a simplified strategy to be more indicative of the field-specific soil Nmin status, which is eased by a markedly reduced sampling frequency and further simplifies the analysis by aggregating the separately analyzed soil depths to only one single depth. Further, currently available simplified on-farm analyses of the soil nitrate content allow for conducting more intensive field-specific soil Nmin analysis, thus contributing to improved nitrogen demand management and decreasing adverse environmental effects.

Original languageEnglish
Article number126369
JournalEuropean Journal of Agronomy
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • Biomass status
  • Early growth stage
  • Nitrogen demand
  • Nitrogen management
  • Plant response
  • Precision farming
  • Sampling technique
  • Satellite imagery
  • Soil sampling requirement
  • Vulnerable zone


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