Luck versus Skill: Is Nitrogen Balance in Irrigated Maize Fields Driven by Persistent or Random Factors?

Fatima A.M. Tenorio, Eileen L. McLellan, Alison J. Eagle, Kenneth G. Cassman, Marie Krausnick, John Thorburn, Patricio Grassini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


The nitrogen (N) balance (i.e., the difference between N inputs and grain N removal) provides an indication of potential N losses to the environment. The magnitude of the N balance in a given year reflects the influence of random (e.g., climate, pest outbreak) and/or persistent (e.g., producer skills, soil type) factors over time. We assessed here the degree to which variation in magnitude of N balance across irrigated maize fields in the US Corn Belt was explained by persistent factors and identified the underlying drivers. Fields with large N balance were identified in specific ("ranking") years, and these same fields were assessed in other ("nonranking") years. Persistent factors explained up to half of the variation in N balance, with 70% of fields with N surplus in a given year also exhibiting surplus in other years. Persistence in large N balance was associated with fields growing maize continuously and applying higher N inputs without any yield advantage compared with other fields. There was also a relationship between N balance and mismatch between producer actual and recommended N rate. These findings highlight available room to reduce N excess in producer fields via improved management, providing a starting point to set priorities and inform policy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)749-756
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 5 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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