Ammonia Volatilization and Nitrogen Retention: How Deep to Incorporate Urea?

Rochette, P., Angers, D.A., Chantigny, M.H., Gasser, M.-O., MacDonald, J.D., Pelster, D.E., and Bertrand, N. (2013). "Ammonia Volatilization and Nitrogen Retention: How Deep to Incorporate Urea?", Journal of Environmental Quality, 42, pp. 1635-1642. doi : 10.2134/jeq2013.05.0192  Access to full text


Incorporation of urea decreases ammonia (NH3) volatilization, but field measurements are needed to better quantify the impact of placement depth. In this study, we measured the volatilization losses after banding of urea at depths of 0, 2.5, 5, 7.5, and 10 cm in a slightly acidic (pH 6) silt loam soil using wind tunnels. Mineral nitrogen (N) concentration and pH were measured in the top 2 cm of soil to determine the extent of urea N migration and the influence of placement depth on the availability of ammoniacal N for volatilization near the soil surface. Ammonia volatilization losses were 50% of applied N when urea was banded at the surface, and incorporation of the band decreased emissions by an average of 7% cm-1 (14% cm-1 when expressed as a percentage of losses after surface banding). Incorporating urea at depths >7.5 cm therefore resulted in negligible NH3 emissions and maximum N retention. Cumulative losses increased exponentially with increasing maximum NH4+–N and pH values measured in the surface soil during the experiment. However, temporal variations in these soil properties were poorly related to the temporal variations in NH3 emission rates, likely as a result of interactions with other factors (e.g., water content and NH4+–N adsorption) on, and fixation by, soil particles. Laboratory and field volatilization data from the literature were summarized and used to determine a relationship between NH3 losses and depth of urea incorporation. When emissions were expressed as a percentage of losses for a surface application, the mean reduction after urea incorporation was approximately 12.5% cm-1. Although we agree that the efficiency of urea incorporation to reduce NH3 losses varies depending on several soil properties, management practices, and climatic conditions, we propose that this value represents an estimate of the mean impact of incorporation depth that could be used when site-specific information is unavailable.

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