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Reducing fertilizer-nitrogen losses from rowcrop landscapes: Insights and implications from a spatially explicit watershed model

August 1, 2015

We present conceptual and quantitative models that predict changes in fertilizer-derived nitrogen delivery from rowcrop landscapes caused by agricultural conservation efforts implemented to reduce nutrient inputs and transport and increase nutrient retention in the landscape. To evaluate the relative importance of changes in the sources, transport, and sinks of fertilizer-derived nitrogen across a region, we use the spatially explicit SPAtially Referenced Regression On Watershed attributes watershed model to map the distribution, at the small watershed scale within the Upper Mississippi-Ohio River Basin (UMORB), of: (1) fertilizer inputs; (2) nutrient attenuation during delivery of those inputs to the UMORB outlet; and (3) nitrogen export from the UMORB outlet. Comparing these spatial distributions suggests that the amount of fertilizer input and degree of nutrient attenuation are both important in determining the extent of nitrogen export. From a management perspective, this means that agricultural conservation efforts to reduce nitrogen export would benefit by: (1) expanding their focus to include activities that restore and enhance nutrient processing in these highly altered landscapes; and (2) targeting specific types of best management practices to watersheds where they will be most valuable. Doing so successfully may result in a shift in current approaches to conservation planning, outreach, and funding.

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