Characterizing and classifying variability in corn yield response to nitrogen fertilization on subfield and field scales

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Marked spatial and temporal variability in yield response to N fertilizer observed in individual yield response trials creates a high degree of uncertainty when estimating economic optimum rates (EORs) of N for a group of trials and when extrapolating these rates from one location to another. A survey was conducted to characterize and classify variability in yield response to N on subfield and field scales. Fertilizer N was applied at five rates (56, 84, 112, 140, and 168 kg N ha–1) in many (6–12) replicated strips within three 18- to 24-ha no-till fields during two corn (Zea mays L.) growing seasons. Yield responses or yield differences between two adjacent strips were measured in 22 to 25 grid cells ha–1 within each field. Cumulative probability distributions (CPDs) were used to estimate the probability that a given N rate produces a yield response less or equal to a specified quantity. The yield responses were classified into potential categories with different N fertilizer requirements using apparent soil electrical conductivity (ECa), digital soil map units, and relative elevation. Analysis indicated that the classifications explained <3% variability in yield response to N applied in the near-optimal range, where probabilities of receiving positive and negative marginal returns were the same. Presenting probabilities of yield response observed at different ranges of N fertilization may provide the basis for assessing the uncertainty associated with the variable effects of weather and variable supply of N when assessing economic risk and benefits of N fertilization in large-scale on-farm studies.

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