More than 1200 wheat and 120 barley experiments conducted in Australia to examine yield responses to applied nitrogen (N) fertiliser are contained in a national database of field crops nutrient research (BFDC National Database). The yield responses are accompanied by various pre-plant soil test data to quantify plant-available N and other indicators of soil fertility status or mineralisable N. A web application (BFDC Interrogator), developed to access the database, enables construction of calibrations between relative crop yield ((Y0/Ymax) × 100) and N soil test value. In this paper we report the critical soil test values for 90% RY (CV90) and the associated critical ranges (CR90, defined as the 70% confidence interval around that CV90) derived from analysis of various subsets of these winter cereal experiments.
Experimental programs were conducted throughout Australia’s main grain-production regions in different eras, starting from the 1960s in Queensland through to Victoria during 2000s. Improved management practices adopted during the period were reflected in increasing potential yields with research era, increasing from an average Ymax of 2.2 t/ha in Queensland in the 1960s and 1970s, to 3.4 t/ha in South Australia (SA) in the 1980s, to 4.3 t/ha in New South Wales (NSW) in the 1990s, and 4.2 t/ha in Victoria in the 2000s. Various sampling depths (0.1–1.2 m) and methods of quantifying available N (nitrate-N or mineral-N) from pre-planting soil samples were used and provided useful guides to the need for supplementary N. The most regionally consistent relationships were established using nitrate-N (kg/ha) in the top 0.6 m of the soil profile, with regional and seasonal variation in CV90 largely accounted for through impacts on experimental Ymax. The CV90 for nitrate-N within the top 0.6 m of the soil profile for wheat crops increased from 36 to 110 kg nitrate-N/ha as Ymax increased over the range 1 to >5 t/ha. Apparent variation in CV90 with seasonal moisture availability was entirely consistent with impacts on experimental Ymax. Further analyses of wheat trials with available grain protein (∼45% of all experiments) established that grain yield and not grain N content was the major driver of crop N demand and CV90.
Subsets of data explored the impact of crop management practices such as crop rotation or fallow length on both pre-planting profile mineral-N and CV90. Analyses showed that while management practices influenced profile mineral-N at planting and the likelihood and size of yield response to applied N fertiliser, they had no significant impact on CV90. A level of risk is involved with the use of pre-plant testing to determine the need for supplementary N application in all Australian dryland systems. In southern and western regions, where crop performance is based almost entirely on in-crop rainfall, this risk is offset by the management opportunity to split N applications during crop growth in response to changing crop yield potential. In northern cropping systems, where stored soil moisture at sowing is indicative of minimum yield potential, erratic winter rainfall increases uncertainty about actual yield potential as well as reducing the opportunity for effective in-season applications.