NUE Explained: How to Use Your NUE Score

So you know your NUE score—now what? With just an NUE score and some basic soil characteristics, growers can discover if they have the potential to save big on inputs this year.

An NUE, or nutrient use efficiency, score can help growers understand the relationship between the nitrogen applied to their field and the yield they achieve. It’s a simple ratio of nitrogen applied to pounds of yield: the less nitrogen per pound, the lower the costs and the higher the return. 

Once a grower understands what NUE is and how to calculate it, they can start to explore ways to use NUE to improve efficiency, reduce input costs, and benefit their soil.

NUE for Better Farm Finances

One of the primary ways that NUE can be used by growers is as an opportunity to look for ways to improve efficiency and reduce nitrogen application. The less nitrogen a grower can apply while still maintaining yield, the higher their profitability will be at the end of the season. With input prices so high, any reduction in nitrogen application has the potential to save growers a significant amount this year. 

AlanMichael Ulrich is an Ohio grower and Sales Agronomist at Sound. 

Last year, we prepaid for half of our fertilizer inputs,” he says. This year, the price of those inputs has completely doubled. Everything doubled. We’re spending more and more money.” 

CEC represents the soil’s ability to hold nutrients, and the lower it is, the more challenging it may be to lower your NUE score

Improving NUE

Once a grower knows their NUE score, they can explore whether reducing costly nitrogen applications will help improve farm finances. The higher the NUE score, the better the potential savings, but there are a few key soil characteristics to examine to see how much of a reduction could be possible. 

AlanMichael says knowing your cation exchange capacity is especially important when considering NUE. CEC represents the soil’s ability to hold nutrients, and the lower it is, the more challenging it may be to lower your NUE score, since any nitrogen placed on the soil in excess of the soil’s holding capacity will be extremely prone to loss. Many growers with low CEC find they need to apply nitrogen multiple times throughout the season. 

All three major soil characteristics — CEC, pH, and organic matter — play important roles in any management decision, including NUE

AlanMichael says that because of the recent volatility in nitrogen prices, it’s really worth it for growers to look at their efficiency scores. There’s a significant potential to be saving a lot of money on inputs,” he says. Can you go from an NUE of 1:1 to 0.9:1? Maybe you can cut back on 10 pounds without sacrificing yield.” 

Know Your Limiting Factors

Once a grower knows their NUE score, they can look at their soil characteristics and see what kind of opportunities they might have to reduce nitrogen application while maintaining yield and increasing profitability. Based on a field’s soil characteristics, some growers may not be able to lower their NUE, but others may find they can cut back on inputs. 

For many years, more nitrogen equaled more bushels, but now growers are seeing that instead of a 1:1 ratio of one pound of nitrogen per bushel, they can get away with maybe 0.8 or even 0.7 pounds per bushel,” says AlanMichael. 

Yield is only as good as a field’s limiting factor, and more and more growers are discovering nitrogen may not be as limiting as previously thought. The higher a grower’s NUE, the less likely nitrogen is limiting yield, and anything above what the crop actually needs is wasted cash. 

The biggest thing NUE can give growers is the ability to know there’s money they don’t have to be spending,” says AlanMichael. At the end of the day, growers are running a business. We want to be as efficient as possible, to know where that line in the sand is and how to get as close as we can without crossing it and sacrificing yield.” 

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Ready to learn more about SOURCE?

SOURCE improves nutrient availability to your crops by stimulating nitrogen fixing and phosphorus solubilizing microbes. The result is more macro and micronutrient availability leading to healthier, more productive plants. A foliar application of SOURCE provides 25 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus per acre.