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Report highlights opportunities for livestock to improve nitrogen use

Nitrogen, a key element in agricultural systems, is the focus of CIEL’s (Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock) latest report that offers recommendations on how the industry can better utilise this essential nutrient and reduce excessive leaching to the environment.

According to Dr Mark Young, innovation specialist at CIEL, the aim of the report was to identify gaps where the livestock sector can use nitrogen more effectively to help deliver sustainable and circular food systems.

The recommendations set our in the report, titled ’Why Nitrogen Matters in Livestock Production’, are based on considerations to the monitoring and management of nitrogen resources, as well as an appreciation of the nitrogen cycle.

“Nitrogen is essential for agriculture. It’s the key element needed for protein production, captured by microbes living in soil, in the roots of plants and colonising the gut of sheep and cattle,” Dr Young explained.

He said while some agricultural practices cause excessive loss of nitrogen to the atmosphere and waterways, others like growing legumes and using manure as fertilise have the ability to capture nitrogen.

“Losses from the nitrogen cycle cannot be eliminated, so the livestock sector needs to exploit the opportunity to minimise losses and hold more nitrogen in the system,” Dr Young stressed.

“This will make farming both more efficient and reduce losses of nitrogen as nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas), ammonia emissions, and nitrate through leaching or run-off.”

To better understand nitrogen’s interaction with the environment, the report, published in September 2023, takes a deep dive into the natural nitrogen cycle, explaining how agricultural practices shape the cycle and the opportunities to improve nitrogen use.

“The report identified the critical need for farmers to have access to reliable tools to measure nitrogen on-farm, soils in particular, to identify and monitor where nitrogen losses occur, in order to maximise nitrogen use efficiency,” Dr Young said.

“By managing the land and on-farm nitrogen resources such as soils, manures and fertilisers, farmers can make management decisions that will make better use of nitrogen.”

One way to minimise the losses incurred by the nitrogen cycle is via developing on-farm technologies to help capture or hold nitrogen, such as by converting livestock manure into fertiliser for feed crops, Dr Young added.

Dr Young says: “This report provides a rounded picture of nitrogen in agriculture, highlighting its key role in producing high-quality protein from livestock and identifying where losses that impact on the environment occur.

“Sustainable agricultural systems should aim to maximise these nutritional benefits while minimising negative environmental impacts,” he concluded.

To read the full report, visit the CIEL website here.

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