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Experimentally we can measure the amount of nutrient a crop removes from the soil or from a nutrient solutions when it grows. That means we can calculate how much nutrient is used to produce a crop. Crop removal can be measured in a few different ways. Sometimes its done in hydroponics. Then its easy to calculate what nutrients are put into the system and what is taken out. You can harvest the crop, dry it and analyse it to see exactly what’s in the root system, the leaves, the actual crop and so on. Of course it will never balance exactly because there are inefficiencies in the system. Plants require energy to grow and some nutrients will be lost to the environment.

Another way of doing it is to grow a crop in its usual situation such as soil, and then go through the same process of measuring what is in the plant at the point of harvesting the crop. Either way you end up with a set of figures such as those in the table below.

Crop removal table

As with hydroponics there is a fudge factor. If you were to apply just those amounts of nutrients you’d not achieve similar yields. Nutrients are always lost the environment because plant roots don’t explore 100% of the soil, so many nutrients may be lost through leaching. Where you have clay soil, if the clay is highly adsorbent (ie you haven’t been applying phosphorus fertilisers or manure for several years), then much of the phosphorus you apply may be adsorbed by the clay and not readily available to the plant (not in the time frame of that crop anyway). Perth’s sands are generally below 1.5% clay so this is not an issue.
Crops vary in their ability to take up nutrients. Some are very efficient, others not so. Much of that is to do with the architecture of their root systems.

The figures above are per hectare so have to be related back to a per plant basis but you can see that there is great variation between the relative amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that each crop uses. The figures can vary a lot depending on things like:
• climate – in countries with low light levels generally have lower yields and therefore lower crop removal figures
• crop variety, and
• time of year.

In our work, we find we may have to apply 30-50% more nutrients to a crop over winter than summer. Why? Rain and slower growth are the reasons. No matter how well you apply fertiliser one decent shower of rain will leach most of it away. And because winter is cooler, invariably the time the crop takes to grow is longer and those inefficiencies multiply.

So what is the fudge factor you have to apply to actually grow a crop? About double is not a bad average. Some crops you might get away with 40% more.

The other consideration is the amount of each nutrient that a plant can access. Each nutrient comes with its own set of problems. Nitrogen is highly leachable. In sand so is phosphorus and potassium. In clay soils things may slow down a bit for the latter two but nitrogen is still converted to nitrate within about 24 hours of application in Perth so the advantages of applying ammonium are not great.

Lets now they can relate some of this to the manures and composts you may use. I’ve used this table before.

Manure composition table

Using tomatoes as an example. If you need 297 kg N per hectare – lets say 30 g N per square metre, then that amounts to 3.3 kg of sheep manure (at about 40-50% moisture content) per square metre per crop. And if we double that for our inefficiency factor then we’re up to over 6 kg manure per square metre of ground.

But that amount of sheep manure contains almost the same amount of phosphorus and our tomato crop only needs just under 20% of that! What happens to the rest?

And what about potassium? Our crop needs more potassium than nitrogen so we will be short changed on that score.

You can see how easy it is to waste heaps of phosphorus and probably how much better your yields may be if you added a lot more nitrogen. And why you might run into disease problems and fruit quality issues due to lack of potassium.

We haven’t even considered yet is at what stage in its life cycle our tomato crops needs each of these nutrients. The figure below shows the pattern of nutrient uptake over the life of a tomato crop.

Crop removal Yara

OK, so sheep poo is not a good idea. What about using chook instead? Well, you will be slightly better off for the relative amount of nitrogen to phosphorus but you are even more short changed on potassium!

If you use half sheep and half chook , the ratio of N:P:K changes to 13.5:10.5:6.5. Not a lot of help – well over on P again and well under on K.

What is my message? Well if you’re growing veges organically using animal manures and compost, unless you are operating in a closed system, don’t kid yourself you are being environmentally friendly. You might be saving on food miles and pesticides but the Swan river isn’t going to thank you for all that phosphorus you are dumping in to the groundwater. And if you are using some sort of closed system, at some stage you are going to have to dump nutrient as the levels of phosphorus (and other plant exudates) become toxic – and where will you put it?

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