Phosphorus Best Practice

Investigating whether current fertiliser and effluent guidelines and policy are strong enough to prevent phosphorus loss

Courtesy of Dairy Farmer / Global HQ

Project Details Ngā taipitopito

Project Status:
Challenge funding:
Research duration:
June 2016 – December 2019

Collaborators Ngā haumi

AgResearch | Lincoln University | South Island Dairy Development Centre

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What are we doing?E aha ana mātou?

Adding phosphorus to New Zealand’s soils can help grow plants – but unfortunately it does the same thing in our water.

Intensive pastoral agriculture in New Zealand has expanded into areas at high risk of phosphorus entering freshwater, such as land with a moderate to high slope, regular and frequent rainfall, or with soil that has a low capacity to absorb phosphorus.

This research investigated whether current practice and policy for fertiliser and farm dairy effluent (FDE) application are sufficient to minimise phosphorus loss.  The research also explored the factors affecting phosphorus loss after the application of fertilisers.

A key global challenge is to meet rising worldwide food demand while protecting water and managing uncertainty around potential future phosphorus price or supply shocks. Research contributed to by this team has compared approaches to phosphorus mitigation and policy in New Zealand and overseas. It forms part of a global effort to understand how to improve efficiency, facilitate change, incentivise phosphorus recovery, and conserve phosphate rock reserves.

How can the research be used? Ka pēhea e whai take ai te rangahau?

  • Our research has found that when fertiliser is managed badly, it’s responsible for 30 to 80% of the phosphorus that drains away from a farm. When it’s managed well, that can decrease to less than 10%.
  • This research has provided a scientific basis for New Zealand and Australian farmers to follow the fertiliser industry-developed ‘4R guidelines’:  Apply fertiliser in the Right place, at the Right time, at the Right rate, and in the Right form.
    • Right place: Avoid critical source areas (CSAs) that have runoff more frequently than other parts of the farm or soil with poor P sorption capacity (eg anion storage capacity <10%). This includes near stream areas. While low water-soluble products may help avoid an initial burst of P loss, frequent runoff events or an inability of the soil to sorb P will mean that even low water-soluble P will be lost in time. It is best to avoid or minimise P applications to CSAs.
    • Right time: Avoid applying a highly water-soluble P fertiliser if rainfall is scheduled within 7 days that will likely to induce runoff. This might mean applying at a different time of year to avoid excessively wet (eg northerly aspects) or dry (spring instead of summer to avoid soil hydrophobicity) conditions.
    • Right rate: The quantity of P loss increases with the rate of P applied so avoid applying more P than is necessary – that is, no more than agronomically required. Where the soil is unable to hold onto much P (eg many Podzol, Organic and Semi-Arid soils) consider reducing the rate and altering the crops grown. For instance, many ryegrass monocultures do not require the high Olsen P required for mixed clover-ryegrass swards.
    • Right form: Water solubility influences the availability of fertiliser-P for loss in surface runoff or leaching. Superphosphate is highly water soluble (90%), while other forms such as serpentine super or reactive phosphate rock are less water soluble (~15 and <5% respectively) – resulting in a slower availability over time.
  • This research indicates that despite adhering to regional regulatory rules, significant phosphorus losses still occur when farm dairy effluent (FDE) is applied at low depths (<2mm) to stony free-draining soils, such as those common in the Canterbury region, the second-largest dairy-producing region in New Zealand.
    • Industry bodies and regional and central government could use these results to strengthen guidelines and regulations regarding the use of FDE on soils of low sorption capacity.
    • Farmers should avoid applying FDE to freely draining soil under irrigation, or use solids removal technology that reduces phosphorus to very low concentrations.

Research team Te hunga i whai wāhi mai

Research Lead
Richard McDowell
Keith Cameron
Lincoln University
Neil Cox

Tools & resources Ngā utauta me ngā rauemi

Journal Article

Phosphorus applications adjusted to optimal crop yields can help sustain global phosphorus reserves

With the longevity of phosphorus reserves uncertain, distributing phosphorus to meet food production needs is a global challenge. Here we match plant-available soil Olsen phosphorus…
View Journal Article
Journal Article

A review of the development and implementation of the critical source area concept: A reflection of Andrew Sharpley’s role in improving water quality

Critical source areas (CSAs) are small areas of a field, farm, or catchment that account for most contaminant loss by having both a high contaminant…
View Journal Article
Journal Article

Temporal Changes in Cd Sorption and Plant Bioavailability in Compost-Amended Soils

The application of Cd-contaminated phosphate fertiliser has enriched concentrations of this non-essential element in many agricultural soils. Consequently, concentrations of the metal in some agricultural…
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Applying phosphorus fertiliser

Applying the right P fertiliser in the right places at the right time and rate can reduce losses. This factsheet is primarily for farmers, including…
View Guidance

Using farm dairy effluent on free-draining soils

Additional measures, on top of regulations and industry good practice and guidelines, may be needed to minimise P losses from FDE applied to free-draining soils.…
View Guidance
Journal Article

A Global Database of Soil Plant Available Phosphorus

Soil phosphorus drives food production that is needed to feed a growing global population. However, knowledge of plant available phosphorus stocks at a global scale…
View Journal Article

Academic outputs He whakaputanga ngaio

Journal Article

Minimizing phosphorus leaching from a sandy clay loam caused by phosphorus fertilizers

At moderate to high fertilization rates, sandy-textured soils can leach much phosphorus (P) threatening surface water quality. High rates are used to compensate for P…
View Journal Article
Journal Article

The potential for phosphorus loss to groundwater from soils irrigated with dairy factory wastewater

Soils irrigated with phosphorus (P)-rich wastewater can increase the risk of P losses from land to water. We investigated if wastewater-irrigated soils can leach P…
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Journal Article

Amending soils of different pH to decrease phosphorus losses

In most cases the application of Al, Fe and Ca amendments decreased WEP in proportion to the rates applied. However, poor performance was noted when…
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Journal Article

Potential phosphorus losses from grassland soils irrigated with dairy factory wastewater

Applying phosphorus (P)-rich wastewater to land can significantly enrich P in topsoil and consequently increase the risk of P losses in surface runoff and leaching.…
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Journal Article

Seventy years of data from the world’s longest grazed and irrigated pasture trials

Pastures are the most widespread land use, globally. The Winchmore trials were established in 1948–1949 in Canterbury, New Zealand and examined either different rates of…
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Journal Article

Plant species rather than elevated atmospheric CO2 impacts rhizosphere properties and phosphorus fractions in a phosphorus deficient soil

By 2050, elevated atmospheric CO2 (eCO2) could stimulate plant growth, but dwindling phosphorus (P) stocks in the soil could limit growth. However, little is known…
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In the media Mai i te ao pāpaho

Ground Effect, February 2020
For the most efficient and cost-effective reductions in nutrient loss, McDowell recommends farmers understand where the CSAs are on their farm and target mitigation strategies to those areas.
Irrigation NZ News, Winter 2019 (page 19)
“More research needs to be done to determine whether applying less FDE at lower rate would decrease phosphorus losses,” says lead researcher Rich McDowell, chief scientist of the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge. “Until we know this, the research suggests that farmers should try to avoid applying FDE to freely draining shallow stony soils under irrigation.”

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