Nitrogen use efficiency: A potential performance indicator and policy tool for dairy farms

Document Type


Publication Date


Journal Title

Environmental Science and Policy


Nitrate leaching, Ammonia volatilisation, Nitrous oxide, Environmental impact


Agriculture | Environmental Health and Protection | Environmental Indicators and Impact Assessment | Natural Resources Management and Policy | Water Resource Management


Escalating fertilizer and feed costs, declining product prices, and increasing regulations to reduce environmental pollution have created new pressures to improve nutrient use in agricultural production. This study provides an overview of factors and processes that impact nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) in dairy production, identifies practices that may bridge gaps between actual-NUE obtained on commercial farms and potential-NUE obtained under experimental conditions, and explores the possibility of using NUE as a performance indicator and policy tool for dairy production. Actual feed-NUE varies from 16% to 36% and is impacted by of a range of dairy practices; manure/fertilizer-NUE varies from 16% to 77% and is very site-specific; and whole-farm NUE varies from 8% to 64% and declines as stocking rates increase. Optimal stocking rate and manure nitrogen (N) crediting can enhance NUE, increase farm profits, and reduce N loss from dairy farms. NUE could be used to further engage dairy producers in collaborative assessments of gaps between their actual N use and the biological potential of N use, to develop performance goals for N use in various production components, and to monitor and evaluate the impacts of alternative feed, manure and fertilizer management practices on N use, profitability, and environmental outcomes.