Nitrogen performance indicators for dairy production systems

Cecile A.M. De Klein*, Ross M. Monaghan, Marta A. Alfaro, Cameron J.P. Gourley, Oene Oenema, J. Mark Powell

*Corresponding author for this work

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18 Citations (Scopus)


Nitrogen (N) is invaluable for maintaining agricultural production, but its use, and particularly inefficient use, can lead to environmental losses. This paper reviews N use efficiency (NUE) and N surplus indicators for dairy production systems to assess their utility for optimising N use outcomes and minimising environmental N losses. Using case-study examples, we also assess realistic goals for these indicators and discuss key issues associated with their use. Published whole-farm NUE and whole-farm N surplus values ranged within 10-65% and 40-700kg N ha-1 year-1 respectively. In a study of five catchments across New Zealand, whole-farm NUE was more strongly affected by catchment differences in soil and climatic conditions than by differences in management. In contrast, whole-farm N surplus differed both between-and within-catchments and was a good indicator of N losses to water. Realistic goals for both NUE and N surplus thus depend on the agro-climatic context of the dairy system and on its economic and environmental goals. Crop and animal NUE values can be valuable indicators for optimising fertiliser and feed use and minimising N losses. However, global or national whole-farm NUE values appear of limited value if the ultimate goal for setting targets is to reduce the environmental impact of N use; whole-farm level targets based on N surplus would be a more useful indicator for this purpose. Our review also reinforces the importance of standardising the variables that should be used to estimate NUE and N surplus values, to ensure equitable comparisons between different systems. Finally, NUE and N surplus targets should also be set in the context of other agro-environmental considerations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)479-488
Journal Soil Research
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • animal NUE
  • crop NUE
  • dairy systems
  • nitrogen use efficiency (NUE)
  • whole-farm NUE

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    De Klein, C. A. M., Monaghan, R. M., Alfaro, M. A., Gourley, C. J. P., Oenema, O., & Mark Powell, J. (2017). Nitrogen performance indicators for dairy production systems. Soil Research, 55(5-6), 479-488.