Nutrient reduction is changing the definition of best practices. It seems that, anymore, where two or more farmers are gathered, there is someone on hand to discuss reducing the flow of N&P to the watershed. In fact, I cannot remember the last gathering of farmers I attended where nutrient reduction was not on the agenda. Thankfully, USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) is part of the discussion and has presented realistic expectations regarding the adoption of new practices.
Adoption rates for programs like this are high when incentives are offered, but growers need a little bang for their buck, and when incentives dry up, so does participation. ERS expressed at IPNI's Soil Fertility Conference in Des Moines a few weeks ago that a solution to the nutrient runoff crisis would have to lend some kind of benefit to growers' operations. They believe this can be achieved through increased synchronization of applications to plant uptake. The result, according to ERS, would be increased nutrient efficiency leading to improved yield and decreased N&P loss. This can save on fertilizer input costs and, if timed right, leads to increased yield.
The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) reported yesterday on a farm in the Chesapeake Bay Region where nutrient reduction has been an imperative for some time now. Targeted applications, greater reliance on technological advances, nitrogen stabilizers and cover crops are paying dividends for one Maryland corn, soybean & wheat producer, and updated best practices are working to help shrink hypoxic zones in the bay. I have pulled an excerpt from the report that gives details on specific practices the Maryland grower has put in place.
From the TFI report: "Along the shores of Chesapeake Bay, farmers like Temple Rhodes, of Centreville, Md., prove farming can be productive and profitable while preserving the Bay. Few regions of the country are more closely scrutinized, and Rhodes is not alone in his efforts to reduce nutrient losses from his crop land.
Rhodes has multiple reasons for intensively managing the nutrients he applies to the soil his family depends on to grow corn, soybeans and wheat. As a businessman, he doesn’t want to spend his fertilizer dollars ineffectively. As a grower, he relies on fertilizer to enrich the productivity of the land. And as an avid outdoorsman, Rhodes is serious about the responsibility of taking care of the soil and water resources that enhance his life as well as the lives of the non-farm public.
Rhodes’ farming practices offer insight to the types of practices being implanted in the Chesapeake Bay. To reduce nutrient loss, he never applies fertilizer on the soil surface. A modified strip-till planter enables him to place nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium eight inches below the surface for corn and soybean production. That gets nutrients right into the root zone where they’re readily accessible to plants while helping to eliminate runoff and volatilization. Nitrogen is further protected with a stabilizer added to the fertilizer to prevent loss to groundwater. This strip-till strategy puts the right source of nutrients in the right place resulting in better crop yields.
“The question for us was - can we use the same amount of fertilizer in a smarter way and grow a better crop?” Rhodes said. “We’ve proven that we can. The big bump in yield we’ve seen comes from putting the right fertilizer in the right place — right in the strip, right below the seed.”
Rhodes has measured an 18.6-bushel per acre advantage to the system compared to standard no-till production.
Timing is also important. Using his strip-till rig, Rhodes split-applies fertilizer on his corn ground, placing the nutrients about four inches beneath surface just prior to when the crop approaches its peak nutrient demand.
“It’s a matter of fertilizer efficiency,” he said. “We want to apply only what the plant needs, when it needs it.”
Nutrient application at Rhodes’ Chestnut Manor Farms is site-specific, guided by GPS-linked soil maps that enable Rhodes to match the right fertilizer and seeding rates to reflect the potential of specific productivity environments. GPS guidance systems utilizing RTK provide pinpoint accuracy for fertilizer, chemical and seed placement.
Tissue sampling during the growing season is used to assess plant nutrition status at each stage of development so that Rhodes can further fine-tune fertilizer applications.
In addition to high-tech techniques for managing nutrients, the Rhodes plants forage oilseed radishes as a cover crop to retain nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium through the winter, reduce soil compaction and prevent erosion. Buffer strips and waterways are also relied on to help protect soil and water."
Click here for the full TFI report...
As the imperative for cleaner water spreads westward across the United States, what once seemed an overwhelming task that could all too easily become tangled in enforcement and regulations now looks more like an opportunity to take modern agriculture to the next level. Many believe the result will be a new focus on sidedress and UAN solutions at the expense of fall anhydrous applications, and the grower above has had good luck with the new practices.
Amid lagging corn prices, efficiency is key and every nickel counts. If these new practices aimed at reducing nutrient runoff deliver better yields without adding expense to the mix, they will catch on. As larger operations upgrade from today's technology to tomorrow's, implements designed with efficiency in mind will make their way to more and more operations and increase synchronization and improve nutrient utilization.
With careful consideration, forethought and a little liquid N, nutrient reduction can have a measurable impact not just on water quality, but also on growers' bottom line. If the practices outlined above catch on, USDA ERs believes the incentive to growers will be in increased nitrogen efficiency, limiting NPK spending and maximizing uptake by crops throughout the season.