Not long ago, the best crop managers produced 1 bu. of corn for every 1.2 lb. of nitrogen (N) applied as fertilizer or credited to the previous crop. Now farmers, such as Jeff Martin and his son Doug, of Mount Pulaski, Ill., have set their sights on a new goal: 1 bu. of corn for every 3⁄4 lb. of N.
"We're not there yet,” Doug says. "We're still at about 1 lb. of nitrogen per bushel of corn. But based on our recent yield trends, we're going to get it down to 3⁄4 lb. before too long.” It's a matter of utilizing available technology and management, from more efficient hybrids to timely application, he adds.
The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), an organization that promotes environmentally sound and profitable farming practices, has designated the Martins and other leading-edge nutrient managers as Upstream Heroes.
Why "heroes?” By efficiently managing fertilizer, these farmers apply the amount needed in the correct way, reduce runoff from their fields and protect water supplies, including both local lakes and reservoirs and the distant Gulf of Mexico, explains CTIC executive director Karen Scanlon.
Efficient nutrient managers, such as the Martins, are also heroes to their bottom lines, points out Dan Towery, who spent a career with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and now works as a no-till farming consultant. "Some nutrient best management practices are more effective than others,” he says. "But anything you do to manage fertilizer more effectively will save you money while protecting streams from unwanted nutrients.”
"The purpose of the Upstream Heroes campaign is to showcase farmers doing an excellent job of nutrient management, so other farmers can pick up ideas from them,” Scanlon says. "We also want to show nonfarmers that farmers are doing the right thing in response to issues of
hypoxia and water quality.”
Telling farmers' stories. Informing the public is especially important. Many, including even rural neighbors, may not know much about modern farming, but they hear plenty about water-quality issues.
For example, an ominous headline in the Jan. 12, 2010, issue of the Christian Science Monitor proclaims: "Earth's Growing Nitrogen Threat.” The story tells readers that "In the U.S. … as much as 40% of reactive nitrogen [the chemically active form] is wasted—washing off farm fields into rivers, lakes and the ocean, where oxygen-depleted ‘dead zones' are growing in number and size worldwide.” (In fairness, the article also points out that some farmers are using soil nutrients more efficiently to reduce losses.)
The term "dead zone” refers to hypoxia, a condition in which excess nutrients and physical water conditions lead to blooms of algae or phytoplankton. When those microscopic plants die and decompose, oxygen levels in the water are depleted. That creates a zone in which marine animals with limited mobility cannot live. Exactly how serious hypoxia is, and how great a role agriculture plays in creating it, is still being studied. But almost everyone agrees that nutrients leached or eroded from farm fields are carried down the Mississippi River into the Gulf.
- March 2010