With the continued falling grain prices and pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nutrient management has become a bigger issue for farmers now more than ever.
Illinois has just recently adopted a program known as the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Implementation. The reason that this program was adopted was to improve Illinois water quality. Illinois is one of many states contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. According to Monica Bruckner at Montana State University, “the dead zone is an area approximately 6,000 to 7,000 square miles.” The reason it has been given the name “dead zone” is because aquatic life cannot survive within this area. The dead zone is caused by an increase of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in the Mississippi River that eventually dump into the Gulf. Agriculture is not the sole cause of the leaching of these nutrients into the river. Sewage treatment plants and home gardening fertilizer also leach these nutrients into the Mississippi.
Farmers have to continue to become innovators when it comes to nutrient management. Just recently a law suit was brought against farmers in three counties upstream of the Des Moines water works in Iowa. Bill Stowe the manager of the Des Moines Water Works, explained why they are suing these counties upstream in an interview with Iowa public radio. Stowe explained “the source of these nitrates is pretty clear. Farmers spread nitrogen fertilizer on their corn fields, it turns into nitrate and then it commonly runs into streams through networks of underground tile pipes that drain the soil.” Stowe then continued to explain “Those drainage systems are managed, in some cases, by county governments, and Des Moines Water Works is now proceeding on the theory that those governments can be held legally responsible for the pollution that their pipes carry. When they build these artificial drainage districts that take water, polluted water, quickly into the Raccoon River, they have a responsibility to us and others as downstream users.” Stowe ends this interview by stating “We need to get down to specific steps that they need to take. If they aren’t willing, we’ll see them in federal court.” Agriculture will continue to have an increase in public pressure. It is important that farmers take their nutrient management plan seriously. If farmers do not take it seriously we may start seeing strict regulations when it comes to applying our fertilizer.
It is not only for fear of regulations and public scrutiny that farmers should want to continue to improve their nutrient management plan. It is also in the best interest for their wallet as well. As grain prices continue to fall, farmers need to look at ways to maximize their input costs. With fertilizer being a top input cost for farmers, they need to ensure they are maximizing yield without over applying. There are many different ways that farmers can be more precise when it comes to choosing the right fertilizer rate. The first thing farmers should start with is a soil test. Soil tests measures how much macro and micro nutrients are in the soil. It also measures the PH of the soil and the soil electrical conductivity. There are two main types of soil sampling that are used today, zone soil sampling and grid soil sampling. Zone soil sampling is the method of soil sampling that has been around the longest. It consists of taking a number of soil samples in different zones across the entire field. In order to establish a zone it requires some pre existing information of the field, like a soil map, topography or a yield map to establish different zones. Grid soil sampling is newer and it does not include any prior information of the field. Murray Welden states in an article with Corn + Soybean digest that grid soil sampling takes a sample generally every 2-3 acres. This is very beneficial because there are many differences in soil in every field. When we are sampling every 2-3 acres then treating every 2-3 acres specifically we can be more precise.
When it comes to applying fertilizer, most is applied in the fall. Fall is more convenient for farmers to get their nutrients on because they do not have to worry about trying to apply it during the spring before planting. Applying all of your fertilizer in the fall is more convenient but when this is done it is more prone to leaching and volatilization. This is especially true for nitrogen. The main form of nitrogen that we apply is in the form of anhydrous ammonia. Anhydrous ammonia is 82% nitrogen. The only problem when “fall applying” is that it gives it more time to leach out of the soil with rain into our ground water. There are a few different steps that farmers can take to prohibit this process from happening. The first thing a farmer can do is wait until the soil temperature is below 50 degrees. When the soil temperature is below 50 degrees it does not allow the nitrogen to turn into nitrate which is easily lost with water. Another step farmers can take to prevent the loss of nitrogen is using a nitrogen inhibitor such as N-serve. N-serve detours the nitrogen turning into the form of nitrate which as stated is easily lost with water. Farmers can also think about split applying their nitrogen. Split applying is best explained as applying half or three fourths of nitrogen in the spring or fall and then applying the rest of the nitrogen during the growing season, when the crop is taking up nutrients. They can band the nitrogen between the rows or have it flown on with a plane in the form of a pellet. All of these processes will help minimize the loss of nitrates into our water.
Another nutrient that is commonly lost is phosphorus. Phosphate is mostly lost with soil through erosion. Some ways to prevent soil erosion is to plant grass water ways where water commonly flows out of fields. Reducing tillage, planting cover crops and planting grass borders around fields are all ways to prevent erosion which will also prevent the loss of phosphate.
If farmers do not continue to be innovative with their nutrient management programs we could see more regulations and lawsuits in the future.
“The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone.” Dead Zone. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2016. <http://serc.carleton.edu/microbelife/topics/deadzone/index.html>.