U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Document Type


Date of this Version



2019. The Authors.


Lu, C., Zhang, J., Cao, P., & Hatfield, J. L. (2019). Are we getting better in using nitrogen?: Variations in nitrogen use efficiency of two cereal crops across the United States. Earth's Future, 7, 939–952. https://doi.org/10.1029/ 2019EF001155


Spatial variation and temporal trajectory of crop nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) have important implications for nitrogen management and environmental conservation. Previous studies have examined cross‐nation divergences in crop NUE but often overlooked its spatial heterogeneity and cross‐crop differences at subnational scales. We examined the relationship between state‐level NUE and nitrogen fertilizer use for two major fertilizer‐consuming crops, corn and winter wheat, which account for over half of national N fertilizer use in the United States. Since 1970, as N fertilizer use rates have changed, the responses of crop yield and NUE have exhibited large temporal and spatial variations. It is evident that NUE of corn begins to decline when N fertilizer application rate exceeds ~150 kg N ha−1 yr−1, and that yield response of winter wheat slows down with annual N fertilizer input above ~50 kg N ha−1 yr−1. State‐level NUE in both crops has risen in recent decades, which could potentially reduce N loss from agricultural production. Across the United States, some major corn‐producing states demonstrate a shift from an increasing trend of NUE during the period 1970 to 1999 to a decreasing trend after 2000, whereas winter wheat‐producing states present an opposite pattern. Furthermore, this study indicates that annual dynamics of N surplus in corn is closely tied with grain yields, while that in winter wheat significantly correlates with N fertilizer input. A larger proportion of N loss would be anticipated if no further increase in corn yield was obtained or fertilizer use kept rising in winter wheat.