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Plan Now to Keep Nitrates in Check

August 29, 2012
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
p20 Nervous About Nitrates
Tim Hoffman (left) and Doug Gucker of the Agricultural Watershed Institute in Decatur, Ill., say grass crops give farmers the opportunity to grow a cash crop and minimize erosion and nutrient loss in the process.  

Nitrogen might be a management challenge this fall

Tim Hoffman believes a ground-soaking rain this fall could be a mixed blessing. On one hand, he knows his parched corn fields need moisture after enduring the worst drought in half a century. On the other hand, he worries about the nitrogen that remains in his fields, unharnessed by the drought-damaged corn crop.

"If the nitrogen converts to nitrate, it could seep into the Sangamon watershed and Lake Decatur, two valuable water resources in central Illinois," says Hoffman, who, in addition to growing corn and soybeans, serves as board chairman for the Agricultural Watershed Institute (AWI), based in Decatur, Ill.

His concerns are shared by Doug Gucker, biomass director and agronomist for AWI.

"I have this terrible fear that once we get the soil recharged, we’ll have tiles running again and the nitrate levels will spike and it’ll be all over the news," Gucker says.

One solution to the potential nitrate problem is for farmers to gate their tile, notes Ken Ferrie, Farm Journal Field Agronomist. "If feasible, install gates on the outlets so you block the tile and don’t let the water out," he says.

The downside, Ferrie says, is that few people have that option available  because older tile systems don’t have gates. He adds, "If you have too much grade on your tile, you’ll blow the tile apart and damage the drainage."

A more viable option than closing gates on tile, Ferrie says, is for farmers to plant cover crops. That is a solution Hoffman plans to implement.

Nitrogen net. "Cover crops do a good job of absorbing nitrates and preventing erosion," Hoffman says. "Besides, I’ve already paid for that nitrogen, and I’d like to find a way to use it." Earlier this season, Hoffman applied nitrogen for his corn crop in preplant and sidedress applications as usual.

Ferrie says radishes, oats and rye are three cover crops that absorb nitrates effectively.

"Last year, our rye cover crops pulled anywhere from 100 lb. to 140 lb. up into the crop," he says.

Richard Payne, who owns Ohio Valley Ag in Owensboro, Ky., is encouraging farmers in his area to consider planting sudangrass. Not only would farmers be able to address the nitrate issue with the crop, he contends, they would also be able to harvest it this fall.

"There is a huge shortage of hay in our area and other parts of the country. Sudangrass could be a great opportunity for farmers because it grows so fast," Payne explains.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - September 2012
RELATED TOPICS: Agronomy, Crops, drought

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