Nutrient removal by harvesting of crops

The nutrient content of a plant depends on the amount of nutrients available to the plant and on the environmental growing condition. The critical level of nutrient concentration of the dry harvested material of the plant leaf is about 2 percent nitrogen, 0.25 percent phosphorus, and 1 percent potassium. Where nutrients are available in the soil in excess of plant sufficiency levels, the percentages can more than double.

In forage crops, the percent composition for nitrogen can range from 1.2 to 2.8 percent, averaging around 2 percent of the dry harvested material of the plant. The concentrations can reach as high as 4.5 percent, however, if the soil system has high levels of nitrogen (Walsh and Beaton 1973).

The total uptake of nutrients by crops from agricultural waste applications increases as the crop yields increase, and crop yields for the most part increase with increasing soil nutrients, provided toxic levels are not reached or nutrient imbalances do not occur. The total nutrient uptake continues to increase with yield, but the relation does not remain a constant linear relationship.

Two important factors that affect nutrient uptake and removal by crop harvest are the percent nutrient composition in the plant tissue and the crop biomass yield. In general, grasses contain their highest percentage of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, during the rapid growth stage of stem elongation and leaf growth.

Nitrogen uptake in grasses, like corn (fig. 6-5), follows an S-shaped uptake curve with very low uptake the first 30 days of growth, but rises sharply until flowering, then decreases with maturity.

Harvesting the forage before it flowers would capture the plant's highest percent nutrient concentration. Multiple cuttings during the growing season maximizes dry matter production. A system of two or three harvests per year at the time of grass heading would optimize the dry matter yield and plant tissue concentration, thus maximizing nutrient uptake and removal.

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