The 2013-14 Pro Farmer Profit Briefing Seminar Series kicked off this week in Mankato, Minnesota. As always, the good folks who showed up had questions on their mind, and were more than willing to share their experiences with us.
I had the dubious distinction of speaking last, right up to the reception hour and as I climbed the stairs to the podium, I admit I had my own drink ticket in hand. Nonetheless, we had a lot to cover. We talked about the influence of corn futures over nutrient pricing and I had charts to show where and when we had sent advice alerts in the fall.
We spent some time talking about Russia, Ukraine and Egypt as all three of those fertilizer producing nations have the power to impact the global supply situation.
But on the topic of "what it means to you", three words emerged... Synchronization, utilization and conservation. The deeper agricultural states dig into nutrient reduction strategies, the more these concepts emerge.
It all goes to best practices. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working for nearly 20 years to reduce the flow of Nitrogen and Phosphate through the watershed from agricultural land. (By the way, commercial industry is under the same kind of scrutiny with reduction strategies of their own to deal with.)
As I have researched the topic, I have attended seminars and conducted interviews and from the 'what can farmers do' perspective, synchronization, utilization and conservation continually boil to the surface. As EPA tries to wrap its mind around how to motivate growers to alter their management practices, USDA Economic Research Service (ERS) has joined the discussion, noting that long-term incentives cannot come from the outside... the incentive must be built into the new practices themselves. There is an understanding at high levels that if the new practices are not only good for the watershed but can also help save growers money on fertilizer without compromising yield, adoption rates will soar.
Synchronization -- Much is known about how modern corn hybrids take up nutrient. There are certain times in the growth cycle of plants when nutrient uptake spikes. Between those times, nutrient applied to the soil is subject to loss. If growers can nail down the 'perfect time' to apply nitrogen, based on the biology of the particular hybrid planted, that timing will lead to better uptake and maintain yields while potentially using less fertilizer. Your seed dealer can provide the specifics on your preferred hybrid.
Incentive -- use less nitrogen and trim fertilizer expenses.
Utilization -- This is not far from synchronization and really, these two work together. Improved utilization is part of the benefit of nutrient uptake synchronization. Considerations here include plant population and soil type. In some sandier soils, the risk of loss may be higher and in order to encourage utilization, foliar applications may have to be experimented with. Emmerson Nafziger from the University of Illinois has been doing work on the relationship between plant population and nitrogen applications. His work suggests a plant population of 34,000 and N rates around 175lbs/acre as the sweet spot to maximize crop growth and yields.
Incentive -- a greater understanding of your soil and increased yields.
Conservation -- Farmers have always been conservationists and its a little off-putting that the EPA suggests this as a new focus. As I sat in a Butler County, Iowa deer shack last weekend, this idea became clear to me. The shack is located at the edge of a wooded creek in the middle of a section of cropland -- basically a riparian strip through the middle of the section. Not an uncommon sight in farm country, and not a bad idea. Not only does my pal Dave have a natural way to filter the nutrient and sediment out of runoff water, he also has a private spot where he and his children -- and his buddies -- and grandchildren can hunt and enjoy the outdoors.
Incentive -- riparian strips and other buffer strips do a lot of good whether they support wildlife or not. Nutrient removal from runoff increases with the introduction of particular grasses, small trees and shrubs, which encourages wildlife. This ultimately can lead to something of a private hunting, camping and fishing mini-preserve.
The best ideas for agriculture come from agriculture. Will fall anhydrous be outlawed? Will crop insurance one day be tied to documentation of conservation compliance? Will your grandchildren have a place to learn to hunt and to love the outdoors, just walking distance from grandma's house? All of these are possibilities, and at present, nutrient reduction is up to volunteers. In the coming year, we will look at these and other means of reducing N&P pollution in greater detail, but for now, let these ideas roll around in your head. EPA, USDA ERs and your local Detpartment of Agriculture understand that solutions will have to come on an individual basis according to the resources and practices on individual farms.
Synchronization, utilization and conservation have the power to help eliminate the perils of spray and pray applications, can encourage healthy row crop growth while boosting yields and give you a private little piece of heaven for you and your kin in your own waterways.
Catch the Pro Farmer Profit Briefing lineup in Lincoln, Nebraska in January and Peoria, Illinois in February. Check your Pro Farmer website under the 'events' tab for all the details. Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year from your Inputs Monitor, and always remember... safety first.