Wheat-farmers are faced with a three-way dilemma: How can they increase both yields and protein levels while adhering to stricter environmental regulations? Digitalization of agriculture is part of the answer.
No other crop covers as much of the world’s surface as wheat. Although world production of both maize and rice is larger in volume, wheat is the second largest crop for human food and the leading source of vegetable protein.
“What we see is that good environmental farming is also good economic farming”
Miles Harriman, Chief Agronomist, Yara
Protein drives quality…
When it comes to bread production, the quality of the wheat grain is critical, and there are many criteria both farmers and millers consider to determine the quality of wheat and flour. But in general, it’s the protein level that determines the commercial value of wheat, and in recent years the protein level in wheat farming has been under pressure.
“It can be a real challenge for farmers to produce high quality wheat,” says Miles Harriman, Chief Agronomist in Yara. “This is not just a problem for the individual farmer, but for the whole sector, and we have seen wheat exports from several European countries affected by this.”
…nitrogen drives protein
The single most important factor affecting the protein level of wheat and flour is the supply of nitrogen. But there is a challenge: overuse of nitrogen can cause negative environmental impact. To complicate things even further there is a protein-nitrogen dilemma the farmer has to handle.
Harriman explains: “There is a an agronomical optimum where additional nitrogen won´t lead to yield increase. But protein levels continue to increase even beyond this point. Limiting nitrogen supply can therefore harm the protein level of the crop. At the same time the farmer cannot just increase the nitrogen dosage, due to the stricter environmental regulations.”
Increase nitrogen use efficiency
Put simply, a wheat farmer´s challenge is this: How can he/she increase both the yield and protein-level, while complying with stricter environmental regulations?
“The solution to the problem is to increase the nitrogen use efficiency, which means getting as much out of the nitrogen as possible. This can be achieved through a combination of best farming practice, balanced nutrition solutions and digital tools,” says Harriman.
Digital agriculture as a solution
A key element in modern agriculture is so-called precision farming, which enables the farmer to add the right amount of the right nutrient at the right time. This is possible through the use of new advanced technology as support tools for the farmer.
These precision farming tools are part of the digitalization of agriculture, which has been one of the strongest trends within agriculture the past years. Yara has developed a number of precision farming tools, among them the Yara N-Tester and the Yara N-Sensor. Both help detect the nitrogen status of the plant. In a field of wheat the level of nutrients can vary from one part of the field to another, which means that there are significant benefits in tailoring the application to meet the nutrient need.
While the Yara N-Tester is a handheld device, the Yara N-Sensor is mounted on a tractor and automatically adjusts the rate of nitrogen application in response to variations in soil nitrogen supply across the field in real-time.
Environmentally friendly=good for business
Nitrogen fertilizers come in different forms, and they impact the environment differently. Regulators are introducing increasingly tighter restrictions on nitrogen use, in order to limit nitrogen run-off into ground and surface water sources, which is putting additional pressure on the farmer.
In general, if a farmer uses urea-based fertilizers, they have to apply a higher amount to achieve the desired protein level than by using nitrates, making urea a less efficient option.
In addition, urea-based fertilizers have a higher risk of losses to air through volatilization.
“Both from an environmental and nutrient use efficiency point of view, nitrate-based fertilizers are preferred. In fact, what we see is that good environmental farming is also good economic farming,” concludes Harriman.