Limits of effective nutrient management in dairy farming: analyses of experimental farm De Marke

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Key words: nutrient management, dairy, prototyping, organic matter, soil fertility, nitrogen, phosphor.

Intensive dairy production in the Netherlands is associated with high farm nutrient (N and P) inputs and high losses to the environment. The Dutch government and the dairy sector stimulate farmers to reduce losses through more efficient use of N and P inputs on their farms. This study explores for a dairy farm on dry sandy soil with average Dutch production intensity (12,000 kg milk per ha) the possibilities to meet strict environmental standards related to N and P by maximizing N and P use efficiency at the level of the farm and of the soil. Moreover, the study addresses the effects of efficient nutrient management on soil fertility.

The research was conducted on experimental dairy farm De Marke, that is designed to meet strict environmental standards, implemented in practice in 1989 and modified continuously to meet its targets by prototyping, i.e. a cyclic procedure of designing, implementing, testing and evaluating measures. The thesis evaluates system development since 2000, while results from 1993-1999 were used to analyse long-term developments.

After implementation of the farming system in 1989, the nitrate concentration in groundwater ‘stabilized’ at a level exceeding the environmental standard: 55 mg l-1. Causes of excessive nitrate leaching were examined by relating measured nitrate concentrations to management. Grazing was associated with higher leaching in spite of careful management with rotational grazing. Leaching under permanent grassland was similar to the overall leaching in crop rotations in which grass was alternated with maize and grains. Spatial and temporal patterns of soil N mineralization were explored to improve the synchronization of N application and crop N requirements. This study indicated that fertilizing a 1st year maize crop, following grassland, is not necessary.

Measures implemented since 2000 to improve nutrient efficiency, included reduced grazing, adoption of anaerobic digestion, application of manure in the rows of maize, growing spring barley as the last crop  in the arable phase, and, since 2004, the abolishment of fertilizer N. These measures contributed to an increase in the manure-N utilization and to an increase in the farm-N use efficiency up to 2008 to values exceeding the value of 33% that was realized in the period 1993-1999. Farm-N use efficiency was 35% in 2000-2003, 43% in 2004-2008 and 37% in 2009-2010. Farm-P use efficiency also increased as compared to the 87% that was realized in 1993-1999, i.e., it was 103% in 2000-2003 and 91% in 2004-2008. In 2009-2010, however, the farm-P use efficiency decreased to 69%, lower than the value realized in 1993-1999. The lower N and P use efficiency in 2009-2010 can be attributed to the lower N and P yields in grassland as a delayed effect of N limitation resulting from the abolishment of fertilizer N in grassland since 2004. Hence, despite the increase in manure-N utilization, mineral-N use is not yet completely redundant.

P-equilibrium fertilization seems to be compatible with highly efficient crop production, in the short and in the long term. Soil organic matter (SOM) percentage in the upper topsoil decreased by 0.03 yr-1 (average across all land uses) at a constant rate over the last 20 years. The possibilities to stop this decline by higher organic matter inputs to the soil seem conflicting with efficient nutrient use. Hence, the long term dynamics of SOM may become critical for future farm performance. It was concluded that N and P use efficiency can be enhanced substantially by on-farm nutrient management, but that efficient nutrient management may conflict with maintenance of SOM.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van Ittersum, Martin, Promotor
  • van Keulen, Herman, Promotor
  • Šebek, L.B., Co-promotor, External person
Award date15 Nov 2013
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789461737199
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • dairy farming
  • nutrient management
  • organic matter
  • soil fertility
  • nitrogen
  • phosphorus
  • intensive livestock farming
  • experimental farms


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