Rik Mulder

Nitrogen. It's powerful stuff.


It was during the mid 1800’s that Justus von Liebig, a German scientist who made major contributions to agricultural and biological chemistry, discovered the power of nitrogen when he created an explosion whilst experimenting with nitrate in his father’s pharmacy. And of course, in more recent history, it is believed that a large stockpile of ammonium nitrate caused the explosion in the Port of Beirut. It’s fair to say then that nitrogen is ‘powerful stuff’. And as farmers we know all too well that this is also true when it comes to plant growth.

How does Nitrogen promote plant growth?

Nitrogen is an important element in chlorophyll (the green pigment in plants responsible for the absorption of light to provide energy for photosynthesis). During photosynthesis, CO2 is taken from the air and converted into plant sugars, which are then metabolised by the plant and converted into essential amino acids that are used for protein development. This metabolism process also requires nitrogen and is essential for plant growth.

No other input (except for water) will give such a quick plant growth response as nitrogen. Over time it is fair to say we have started to enjoy, and perhaps even exploit, the effects of this precious input. With nitrogenous fertilisers us farmers have been able to… let’s say…’ cheat the system’ a little bit. But of course, most often when we cheat… we get caught.

The impact on quality 

In modern-day agriculture, our reliance on nitrogenous fertiliser has perhaps allowed us, to some extent, neglect the maintenance of the natural systems which aid in supplying all of the other nutrients a healthy plant requires. This can result in vulnerable plants, prone to disease and pests.

The environment we live in

At Soil Matters we adhere to the principle that everything is a product of its environment i.e. everything in existence is part of, and a product of, its environment. ‘Back in the day’ when we were roaming around as hunters and gatherers we of course ate whatever the environment provided and animals remain loyal to this principle today.

We as humans however have chosen to break away from this principle, instead deciding ourselves which plants should grow in which environments and influencing the environment to suit. This has allowed us to make incredible advancements in our ability to grow large quantities of food. However, we have come to realise that we are testing the upper limits of what mother nature can handle; so much so that we may even be fundamentally altering the macro climate of this planet!?

Nitrogen capping

Over the past decade there has been a global realisation that we need to make changes in the way we are doing things, and one of the topics which is receiving increased attention is nitrogen use on crops; not only due to the pressure that inorganic nitrogen has on aquatic systems, but also due to nitrogen volatilisation losses.

In Europe governments have implemented a nitrogen budget which aims to regulate nitrogen usage and reduce emissions, not only from fertilisers but also from the burning of fossil fuels. Resultantly, the transport and construction industries are now competing with farmers regarding their NOx and methane emissions. Conflict and protests have ensued and simply put… it’s not a pretty picture.

 Due to the lower population density in New Zealand we will not necessarily face the same limitations, but focus on nitrogen management is growing. In New Zealand the focus is primarily on the pressure on the aquatic ecosystem and the energy requirements of the nitrogen manufacturing process. To give you an idea here... to synthesise one tonne of nitrogen fertiliser from the atmosphere, the equivalent of approximately 300 cubic metres of gas is required. A normal Dutch household uses 1000 to 1500 cubic metres annually, which equates to only a few tonnes of fertiliser.

I think the point is clear. We must treat this nutrient carefully and use it wisely. 

So what’s the opportunity? The potential solution?

We know that we must move in a direction that sees us maintain (or increase) production whilst becoming less reliant on synthetically produced nitrogen right!? So what is our first point of call? The air! The air we breathe is made up of 80% nitrogen. That means… air in your soil equals nitrogen in your soil.

Keeping our heads above ground

Some think about plant growth and look at the soil as a simple black box - what we want to get out we must put in, but of course we know that plant growth is also very reliant on elements present in the atmosphere (being carbon, water, nitrogen and to some extent sulphur). This is apparent when we see a tree popping up in a crack between some rocks on a mountain. Now, plants like this are gifted and powerful, but usually not that edible.

 To feed ourselves and our animals we rely on crops that are palatable, and to produce these crops in the quantities that we need to feed us and our animals nowadays we rely on cultivation. But when we started cultivating, that was the point where the dynamics fundamentally changed.

Soil structure

Soil is a living thing and needs to breathe. If soil can breathe then it can be a host for the likes of azotobacter, worms, legumes, protozoa and many other organisms which aid in the nitrogen cycle from the atmosphere; but to breathe, the soil needs good structure.

When we started cultivating soils, our appreciation for good soil structure and support of living organisms in the soil diminished. The time has come for us to increase focus on soil structure, allowing us to lower the environmental impact of our food production systems and improve the quality of our produce.

We can help

The good news is we do not have to go hungry when we take this route. The reason being… nitrogen supply may not always be the limiting factor for growth processes such as protein development, but rather it might be, say, your plants’ ability to access sufficient molybdenum or sulphur!? And that’s where Soil Matters comes in - we can help you identify potential opportunities like this to improve your soil health and boost growth.

 At Soil Matters , we look at how we can improve the cycling of airborne nutrients (CO2, N, H2O and S) by applying and implement fundamental natural principles into your modern day farming practices. We will help you improve your soil structure, therefore enhancing the ability for your soil biology to thrive and ensure nutrient (carbon) cycling occurs. Because of course, as I said earlier, “air in the soil equals nitrogen in the soil.”

Once the structure is there then the next step is to look at the required nutrients for protein development in your crops, but that’s for our next post!

 I’ll leave you with this question to wrap up… how much attention are you paying to soil structure in your farming operation?

Rik Mulder
General Manager

Fun fact:

Justus von Liebig is the discoverer of the effects of nitrogen on plant growth. In his early days he was a profound promoter of the use of nitrogen to enhance plant growth. However, what is often forgotten about is that at an older age he discovered new insights and learnt that the unlimited use of nitrogenous fertiliser does not come without consequences. We have an English translation of his diary available in which he describes the journey of his learnings. Feel free to get in touch and we will get you a copy!

Contact us for a quick yarn about how we can help your farm

Phone 0800 764 5628
Call us!

When you work alongside a Soil Matters specialist, first we’ll tee up a farm visit so we can get to know each other, and to learn what your goals are for your farm. Next we’ll gather the relevant information to assess the health of your soil (you can start with a specific area or we can do a whole farm assessment). Then we’ll take this information, and together with the other experts in our team as required, we will look to identify any factors which could be limiting your plant growth and put a plan in place!

One of our team will be in touch!
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