Ongoing research and development to improve efficient use of products on-farm, combined with investment in knowledge transfer across the industry will secure nitrogen fertiliser’s position at the heart of UK agriculture, believes Dr George Fisher, of CF Fertilisers.

“Like many other agricultural inputs, nitrogen-based fertilisers are increasingly under the spotlight as the industry moves towards more sustainable methods of production. It’s simply impossible to dismiss the role of nitrogen in promoting plant growth and helping UK growers achieve extraordinary levels of production from our largely temperate climate.

“Producers have worked hard to become more efficient in their nitrogen use in recent years producing ever greater amounts of food from the same, or less, N inputs, and this is a trend that will become even more important in the future.”

As a relatively small island, GB is largely dependent on home-grown crops and livestock for fresh food, milk and meat products with nitrogen essential to this, he pointed out.

“Around 40% of all food protein is derived from manufactured fertiliser with the majority of our staple food groups being highly dependent on nitrogen use.

“One million tonnes of nitrogen are used in British agriculture every year and with CF manufacturing and supplying up to 40% of this, we are a company absolutely at the heart of UK food production and take this responsibility very seriously.”

Focusing on the future

Responsible production and use of fertiliser will become more important in the future and must align with an increasingly complex legislative framework, but farmers realise that this is also likely to improve on-farm economics, added Dr Fisher.

“It’s increasingly important to ensure that every kg of nitrogen fertiliser applied ends up in plants to produce food and is not lost from the system. Doing so makes sense from all viewpoints.”

The Clean Air Strategy 2019, for example, has focused peoples’ minds on nitrogen fertiliser use efficiency (NfUE) with a suggested move away from urea to AN or inhibited urea products to reduce ammonia emissions, he explained.

“Efficiency values for crops typically range between 50% to 80% but it is clear that better quality, AN-based solid fertilisers are at the top end of this scale whereas urea-based products, liquids and blends tend to be at the lower end.

“Our CF N-Min soil testing and N-Calc applications assessment tool have also proved invaluable for many growers in establishing the right rates and right time is best achieved by using the more stable AN over urea in the UK’s maritime climate. Even with inhibited urea products designed to reduce loss of Ammonia to the air, volatilisation is still an issue.”

Improved manufacturing efficiency

Another key component of making fertiliser fit for the future is focusing on the carbon footprint of manufacture, Dr Fisher told The SF.

“CF has made major steps in reducing the greenhouse gas production associated with manufacture, worked hard to produce accurate carbon footprints for all our products and made significant steps forward with best practice technology throughout all our processes.

“For example, we’ve installed state-of-the-art N2O abatement technology on the nitric acid plants at Billingham to reduce N2O emissions by 3000 tonnes every year and all told we’ve reduced the carbon footprint of Nitram production by 40%.

“Working with the Carbon Trust, CF has also produced independently verified carbon footprints for its entire range of fertilisers as well as the ammonia and nitric acid used in the manufacturing of our ammonium nitrate.”

Emerging legislation, such as that coming out of the Clean Air Strategy, will put increased emphasis on fertiliser choices make using urea increasingly difficult in the future, he said.

“Every producer, whether livestock or arable, should now carry out a nutrient plan and carbon audits will become increasingly important in the future. Some milk buyers are already asking their suppliers to provide this information and one of the biggest elements of this is your nitrogen fertiliser use.

“It’s something we have been aware of for some years now and whilst the international standard figure is 6.6kg of carbon for every 1 kg of N you use, with CF ammonium nitrate (Nitram) it is almost half this at 3.4kg for every 1 kg of N used. This is a direct result of the decisions we have made around our own best practice and de-carbonising the manufacturing process.”