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Nutrient Use and Outcome Network (NUOnet)

Steering Committee: Jorge A. Delgado, (Chair, POC), Sharon Weyers (Logistics and Communications POC), Curt Dell (Technical POC), Daren Harmel (Data POC), Peter Kleinman, Karamat Sistani, April Leytem, David Huggins, Tim Strickland, Newell Kitchen, John Meisinger, Steve Del Grosso, Jane Johnson, Kip Balkcom, John Finley, Naomi Fukagawa, Mark Powell, and Scott Van Pelt

Vision: Efficient use of nutrients to optimize production and product quality of food for animals and humans, fuel and fiber in a sustainable manner that contributes to ecosystem services.


Best nutrient management practices are critical for maintaining profitable economic returns, sustaining higher yields, lowering environmental impacts, optimizing nutritional quality, and providing ecosystem services. Best management practices that improve nutrient use efficiencies can reduce nutrient losses from agricultural systems. However, we need to improve our understanding of biological, physical and chemical influences on nutrient processes. For instance, crop use efficiency of nitrogen (N), the primary macronutrient regulating yield and protein content, can be reduced by processes such as denitrification (N2O and N2 emission), leaching (NH4-N, NO3-N, and organic-N), ammonia (NH3-N,) volatilization, surface runoff and erosion, disease, and non-crop competition. Similarly, we need to obtain more information about biological and physical cycles of nutrients, especially phosphorus (P), including factors that influence nutrient availability from fertilizers, crop residues, cover crops, manures, and other byproducts. We need a better understanding of relationships between soil biological communities and ecosystems, including plant roots and root exudates, and availability and uptake of macro- and micro-nutrients.  In addition, we need information regarding how these practices impact yields, organoleptic qualities, and the macro- and micro-nutritional composition of plants.  This information will improve our ability to develop best nutrient management practices.

Optimal soil nutrient levels are critical for maximizing economic returns, increasing sustainable yields, lowering environmental impacts, sustaining ecosystem services and optimizing nutritional and organoleptic qualities of human and animal foods. Efficient management practices are crucial for increasing economic returns for land managers in a sustainable manner while producing high quality of food for animals and humans with reduced off-site transfer of nutrients from agricultural areas in watersheds. Optimizing N and P inputs requires more information about nutrient inputs from fertilizers, manures, composts, agricultural byproducts, cover crops, and other nutrient sources in addition to nutrient cycling within soils.  This requires data from long-term nutrient management studies across a wide range of soils, crops, and environmental conditions. Land management needs are to connect nutrient management practices for crops with nutrient use efficiency; crop quality; crop chemical composition and nutritional value, quality and acceptability for animal and human health.  Development of databases that enable the scientific exploration of connections among data generated from diverse research efforts such as nutrient management, fate and ecosystem service outcomes, nutritional composition of crops, and animal and human health, is needed.

Nitrogen is a key nutrient that enhances agricultural yield and protein content, but multiple N loss pathways, as previously mentioned, reduce crop N use efficiency (NUE). Implementing proper management practices is needed to reduce N losses from agricultural systems. ARS has multidisciplinary scientific teams with expertise in soils, ecological engineering, hydrology, livestock management and nutrition, horticulture, crop breeding, human and animal nutrition, post-harvest management and processing, and other areas, and intentional collaboration among these teams offers opportunities to rapidly improve NUE and crop quality and reduce off-site N losses. 

Similarly, increased P use efficiencies are needed to enhance and ensure sustainable agricultural production and to reduce environmental degradation of water sources. Manure is a valuable source of P and it can be used as a soil amendment to reduce crop production costs. However, there is a need to improve our understanding of the biological and physical cycles of soil P, as well as to obtain more information about P supplies from fertilizer, crop residues, cover crops, manure, and byproducts, and livestock nutrition impacts on manure properties.

There is also a need for a better understanding of soil biological communities and ecosystems, including plant roots and root exudates and how their interactions with crops and community ecology affect yield and the uptake of macro- and micro-nutrients and the ultimate nutritional composition and organoleptic qualities of the crop. Studies documenting the responses of crop-associated biological communities to management practices and genetic technologies implemented across multiple environments (e.g., soil types and chemistries, hydrologic regimes, climates) will improve our understanding of gaps in macro- and micro-nutrient management strategies.

 A goal of the USDA-ARS is to increase agricultural production and quality while reducing environmental impacts. The Nutrient Uptake and Outcomes (NUOnet) database will be able to help establish baselines on nutrient use efficiencies; processes contributing to nutrient losses; and processes contributing to optimal crop yield, nutritional and organoleptic quality. This national database could be used to calculate many different environmental indicators from a comprehensive understanding of nutrient stocks and flows. Increasing our understanding of stocks and flows could help in the identification of knowledge gaps as well as areas where increased efficiencies can be achieved at a national level. NUOnet could also be used to develop tools to derive cost-benefit curves associated with nutrient management improvement scenarios and assess local, regional and national impacts of off-site nutrient loss. Understanding how agricultural production impacts human health is a challenge, and the database could be used to link crop management strategies to crop chemical composition to human consumption patterns and ultimately to human health outcomes. A national database will also be very important for development and evaluation of new technologies such as real-time sensing or other proximal and remote sensing technologies that enable assessment of nutrient use efficiencies, particularly at the grower level. The database could also be used to develop analyses that will contribute to the recommendation of policies for resource allocations that will most effectively fulfill the goals of the Grand Challenge. Such a national database with contributions from peers across different national programs could also enhance collaborations between ARS, universities, and extension specialists, as well as with producers, industry, and other partners.

Strategic Goals of NUOnet:

  • Develop connections between ARS sci­entists conducting research in nutrient management and in human and animal nutrition; relate data for soil nutrient input to data on nutritional chemi­cal composition of plants grown under those conditions; connect the NUOnet to the USDA Food Data System (FooDS) that includes the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard References, the Food and Nutrient Database for Dietary Studies, and Food Patterns Equivalents Database. FooDS is also linked to specialty databases such as the Flavonoid and Dietary Supplement Ingredients Databases housed in the National Library of Medicine. Linkages will ultimately allow assessment of how agricultural practices impact specifics of food composition and ultimately on human health outcomes.
  • Establish NUOnet as a platform to strengthen the cooperation between the ARS scientists conducting research in nutrient management by regions and by topic areas (for example, an assessment of NUE across the USA, or assessment of nitrate leaching in the Midwest, or an assessment of how nutrient management can improve quality of food for humans and animals).
  • Use the NUOnet database to effectively fulfill the goals of the ARS Grand Challenge to increase quality production with less environmental impact. As part of this goal, the database will be used: to establish baselines on how management, soils and the environment affect NO3 leaching, nutrient use efficiencies (e.g., NUE), and nutrient quality/density and acceptability when used as food for humans and animals; to monitor nutrient use efficiency (e.g., NUE); and to monitor crop nutritional composition across inputs.
  • Use the NUOnet database to develop local, regional and national evaluation tools to conduct assessments that evaluate outcomes of current and proposed policies and resource allocations among regions (e.g., identification of areas or regions where NO3-N leaching potential is higher and thus where to implement best management practices to reduce NO3-N leaching) and provide metrics for tracking success.

Foundational Goals:

  • Develop a pilot NUOnet website with prospectus, strategic goals, annual goals, proposed products, list of steering committee members (with contact information), and list of participants.
  • Grow participation in NUOnet:
    1. Invite all field scientists (~80 have expressed interest in joining). Include the 4R efforts in the NUOnet
    2. Hold an informational meeting to gain participants at the 2016 Tri-Societies meeting.
    3. Bring all the phosphorus, nitrogen management, and macro- and micro-nutrient cycling scientists together.
    4. Bring together scientists conducting research on nutritional and organoleptic qualities of human and animal foods with scientists conducting research on nutrient management.
  • Expand efforts of NUOnet by connecting to stakeholder groups and other interest groups (for example, the 4Rs Institute or university cooperators, Multistate Research and Activity programs of the State Agricultural Experiment Station, or NGOs such as “Farm to Field”).
  • Prepare for database assembly
    1. Preparing for database assembly will not be a trivial task and it will take substantial resources. Coordinate cooperation between groups (e.g., ongoing GRACEnet efforts) and submit proposals for postdoc opportunities and grants that could help accelerate these efforts.
    2. Expand on initial framework and database entry template used by GRACEnet and REAP to include data on crop quality, starch, nutrients, etc., with additional parameters to be added as they are identified.
    3. Evaluate/merge existing databases that can be used/incorporated into NUOnet (e.g., link to the USDA Food Composition databases).
    4. Collate and enter published ARS data (last five to ten years) into the ARS NUOnet
    5. Collate and enter unpublished ARS data (e.g., Daren Harmel’s nutrient loss database).
  • Utilize available ARS data sources and databases including beta NUOnet database (see #4) to identify research gaps and research problems to be resolved and launch NUOnet nutrient assessments.
  • Evaluate and utilize available ARS tools to evaluate utility for launching NUOnet assessments (e.g., Soil Nutrient Assessment Program (SNAP), which calculates yield for different regions of the USA; Whole Farm, which enables economic assessments of farming practices from inputs to outputs; or Integrated Farming Systems Management (IFSM) for evaluating long-term performance, economics and environmental impacts of production systems, including assessment of manure quantity and nutrient content as a function of the quantity and nutrient content of the feeds consumed).

Products/Action Items (2016-2017):

  • Harvest data with formulas in existing databases to develop a preliminary nutrient management database for NUOnet. Work with database developers/managers of existing databases to develop a preliminary NUOnet prototype that could be used to show potential contributors the potential of a nutrient management database.
  • Foster conversations/interactions with the team modernizing the national nutrient database for food composition (Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center).
  • Develop connections/liaisons with ongoing efforts in the USDA, other federal agencies, universities, and the private industry that are working to develop an ontology that relates agricultural data with consumer/human health data.
  • Create a one- or two-page prospectus on NUOnet.
  • Communicate with and recruit national and international partners.
  • Contact sources of information (peers that can contribute data; harvest the literature data).
  • Plan for a meeting at the 2017 ACS meeting. Request for some time at the GRACEnet/REAP 2016 ACS annual meeting. If possible, have a separate short informative meeting in 2016 at the ACS annual meeting.
  • Conduct survey of NUOnet participants about their current research efforts related to nutrients to start identifying potential groups of research cooperation. Conduct a new survey of ARS scientists to identify potential research/database groups by topics and/or regions to participate in developing data papers where regional and/or national analysis could be conducted for a given topic and published in a paper, and the data used could be uploaded to the NUOnet.
  • Organize the group to start catalogue of methodology to get published and/or posted on NUOnet. Put together a group of scientists that can put together methodology – Curt Dell will lead this effort.
  • Identify external stakeholders/groups to liaise with:
    1. April Leytem, Liaison to field to market
    2. Mark Powell, Liaison to start communication with international associations
    3. Jorge Delgado and Daren Harmel, Liaisons to IPNI, Silvia Brouder (Purdue University) and Bill Raun (Oklahoma State University)
    4. Karamat Sistani, Liaison to Wayne Honeycutt (with a published paper on manure N mineralization)
    5. Peter Kleinman, Liaison to SERA – P Group
    6. David Huggins, Liaison to LTAR
    7. Steve Del Grosso, Liaison to GRACEnet
    8. Jane Johnson, Liaison to REAP
    9. Sharon Weyers, Liaison to Soil Biology
    10. Liaisons (pending) to relevant Multistate Research and Activities programs of the State Agriculture Experiment Stations
      1. Potential Liaisons pending with WERA 103, S1063 and NRSP_TEMP11.
    11. John Finley, Liaison to Human Nutrition Database/Human Nutrition Research Centers
    12. Naomi Fukagawa, Director, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center
    13. National Agricultural Library – (pending)
    14. Other groups? Animal nutrition
  • Put together proposal to the Soil Health Institute – Jorge/Karamat.

Communication Plan:

  • Communicate via email.
  • Establish a Sharepoint site.
  • Get together at the ASA/CSSA/SSSA annual meetings.
  • Place a blurb in the CSA newsletter prior to meetings to announce a meeting of the nutrient group.
  • Contact other professional societies such as the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Examples of Cross-Location Efforts that Could be Achieved by Teams

Use NUOnet to bring scientists together in committees and research collaboration/cooperation groups to conduct regional comparisons/national comparisons in the following areas:

  • Cover crop management

            How do legume covers influence the N balance (is that pattern regionally specific)?

            How do covers influence yields/cause yield deficits?

How do covers influence nutrient sequestering/synchronicity with crop needs and crops consumed?

  • Crop management
    • Rotations: What is NUE for corn on corn versus corn-soy across the country?
    • Manure management: How does animal nutrition influence manure quality; can manure quality be influenced by animal nutrition to intersect with agronomic use of manure amendments?
    • Human nutrition: Does management influence the nutritive value of the crop?

How do representative management strategies influence the nutritive value of an agronomic product and the subsequent nutritive value for human consumption?

  • Animal nutrition
  • How does animal nutrition influence manure production/manure quality and the value of that product for agronomic uses?

Modeling of animal nutrition and manure quality/manure management         (e.g., IFSM modeling how management is influencing availability and loss of nutrients; dairy/beef and how they differ if stocked or grazed).

  • What are drivers of NUE across representative management strategies in the United States?
    • By crop (individual crops with national evaluation: corn, wheat, cotton, etc.)
    • By rotation (corn on corn vs. corn – soybean; other rotation complexes)
    • By tillage management (depth/disruption, timing, zero)
    • By cover crop use (legume influence on N balance; cover crop cocktails; N sequestration/synchronicity)
    • By fertility management (fertility source/timing)
    • By manure use/manure production
  • Nutrient Management and Human Nutrition Research
  • How do nutrient management strategies influence macro- and micro-nutrient composition of plant foods?
  • Strengthen the cooperation/research of ARS scientists conducting research in nutrient management with ARS Human Nutrition Centers. 

September 20, 2016


Last Modified: 10/28/2016
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