Factors Affecting Nitrous Oxide Emissions Following Subsurface Manure Application

[Abstract] Subsurface manure application is theoretically susceptible to greater denitrification losses and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions compared to surface application methods – primarily attributed to manure being placed in a more anaerobic environment. A review of field studies suggest N2O emissions typically range from 0.1% to 3% of total applied N from subsurface application methods, but there is considerable variation in emissions depending on pre- and post-application soil moisture conditions, readily-available carbon content in manure compared to background levels in soil, localized nitrogen form and oxygen concentration at the application site, and application depth. This paper will summarize peer-reviewed literature of field studies that quantify N2O emissions subsequent to subsurface manure application and identify the most prominent determining factors cited by authors.

Why Study Nitrous Oxide Emissions of Manure?

Ammonia abatement efficiencies of up to 90 percent have been documented with subsurface application and incorporation of animal manures compared to conventional surface application methods. While reducing ammonia emissions has positive implications for air and water quality, a portion of the nitrogen conserved may come at the expense of increased nitrous oxide emissions produced during denitrification and nitrification processes in the soil. As a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, nitrous oxide has been linked to anthropogenic climate change and depletion of stratospheric ozone. Release of nitrous oxide from agriculturally-productive soils into the atmosphere also represents a loss of crop nutrients. Understanding the circumstances and manageable factors that contribute to nitrous oxide formation in soils subsequent to manure application is important for retaining crop nutrients and preventing greenhouse gas emissions.

What did we do?

A literature review was performed to investigate the factors that contribute to nitrous oxide emissions following subsurface application of animal manure to both grassland and arable land, compare results from different application techniques, and examine the conditions and circumstances that lead to nitrous oxide emissions.

What have we learned?

Several studies demonstrate significant increases in nitrous oxide emissions (from 0.1 to 3 percent) attributable to factors including increasing soil moisture content, high concentrations of readily-available carbon in manure substrate, increased nitrate concentration in soil, shallow application depth, high soil temperature, and ambient conditions during and immediately following application (table 1). Other studies show no difference in nitrous oxide emissions as compared to surface application methods. Reasons that subsurface application techniques will not necessarily result in greater nitrous oxide emissions were: 1) the length of the diffusion path from the site of denitrification to the soil surface may lead to a greater portion of denitrified nitrogen being emitted as nitrogen gas; 2) the soil moisture conditions and aeration level at the time of application may not be suitable for increased nitrous oxide production; 3) prior to manur e application, soils may already contain readily-metabolizable carbon and mineral nitrogen, thus any increase in nitrous oxide emission following application may not have a significant impact; and 4) weather events subsequent to manure application may effect soil moisture content and water-filled-pore-space, thereby affecting nitrous oxide emissions. Several studies document nitrous oxide emissions due to subsurface application methods (including manure incorporation and shallow injection) but research comparing nitrous oxide emissions from different subsurface application techniques and application depth is limited. Lack or absence of data in literature about manure chemistry, nitrogen application rates, application technique or method, as well as soil and atmospheric conditions during and after application made it more difficult to draw specific conclusions on factors affecting nitrous oxide emissions from subsurface-applied manure.

Further research is needed to determine the environmental and economic tradeoffs of implementing subsurface manure application methods for abatement of NH3 considering different future greenhouse gas emissions and market scenarios. Recent work suggests a link between denitrifier community density, organic C, and N2O emissions. Characterization of these biological mechanisms and identification of genetic markers for key enzymes should continue, particularly with respect to various subsurface manure application techniques, different manure types and N application rates, soil types, environmental conditions, and soil chemistry. Subsurface application depth plays an important role in determining the proportion of N2O to N2 emitted during denitrification; however, the number of field studies that examine the impact of application depth is limited. More research is needed to determine optimal manure application depth as influenced by soil type, soil chemistry, timing of application, and vegetative cover. Finally, future research on subsurface manure application will allow existing and future prediction models to improve estimation of annual N2O emissions at landscape scale and airshed levels. Refinement of greenhouse gas inventories, including N2O emissions from agricultural production systems, will assist agriculture producers, scientists, and policy makers in making informed decisions on greenhouse gas emission mitigation.

research articles reporting factors of Nitrous Oxide

Future Plans

Future agricultural greenhouse gas regulations and/or carbon market incentives have potential implications for agricultural producers, including the method and timing of manure application. Controlled, replicated, and well-documented research on subsurface manure application and subsequent nitrous oxide release is critical for estimating the costs and benefits of different manure application techniques.


David W. Smith, Extension Program Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension DWSmith@ag.tamu.edu

Dr. Saqib Mukhtar, Professor and Associate Department Head for Extension, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

Additional information

The publication ‘Estimation and Attribution of Nitrous Oxide Emissions Following Subsurface Application of Animal Manure: A Review’ has been accepted for publication in Transactions of the ASABE.


Funding for this effort provided by USDA-NIFA grant No. 2011-67003-30206.

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