Stewardship that Pays
4R advocates tout ROI of proper fertilizer management
By Rich Keller
As farmer-customers adopt precision ag technology and services more rapidly than ever, service providers are emphasizing the value of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program.
It only makes sense. Regulators are paying more attention to in-fi eld applications of traditional nutrients, and a growing body of scientifi c research suggests even secondary nutrients and micronutrients deserve study. The products might help crops use nitrogen (N), potassium and phosphorus more efficiently, which means less chance for nutrient runoff.
“A lot of our precision ag programs mirror the 4R concept,” says Lucas Householder, general manager of Southern States Cooperative’s Eastern Virginia Agronomy in King William, Va. The 4Rs—right source, right rate, right time and right place—are backed by four fertilizer organizations including The Fertilizer Institute and The International Plant Nutrition Institute. They aim to guide responsible crop nutrient use among fertilizer stakeholders.
Among the farmers Householder sees following these increasingly important guidelines is Calvin Haile of Haile Farm in Dunnsville, Va. He points out Haile is a producer who has jumped into precision ag technology to help protect the nearby Chesapeake Bay. The two are among fi ve grower-retailer pairs recognized as 2016 4R Grower and Retailer Advocates by The Fertilizer Institute.
“We’re in an environmentally sensitive area next to the Chesapeake Bay,” Householder
explains. “We’ve got a lot of attention on us and our farmers. Using the 4R concepts fi ts right into our precision ag programs. The result is making the farmers money and helping the Bay.”
As an organization, Southern States’ eastern Virginia location has had a bump in customers adopting precision technology. Variable-rate fertilizer application has proven highly successful in meeting local 4R goals, Householder says.
More than the basics. A similar scenario is playing out in southeast Illinois, where farmers are coming out ahead by implementing 4R principles, says Mike Wilson, special products marketing coordinator for Wabash Valley Service Company cooperative. The ag retailer, based out of Allendale, Ill., received recognition as a 4R Advocate in 2013.
The team at Wabash Valley uses field-data analysis to determine how to meet 4R principles. The soil types in the 10-county region are poor, with lower organic matter and low electrical conductivity.
Nutrient management requires variable-rate fertilizer applications based off the soil test, yield data, soil type and fi eld history, he says. Also, the co-op is using tissue testing to monitor nutrients in crops throughout the growing season.
“Variable-rate split N applications are important,” Wilson says. “We don’t have the types of soils that we can put on 200 lb. of N preplant and have it there when new high yielding, full-season, N-using hybrids need it.”
Using split application of N is common, Wilson says. “It makes economic sense because we are getting that N use rate down below 1.2 lb. per bushel (of corn). We’ve got a good number of growers well below 1 lb.”
Retailers should serve as leaders for farmer-customers by educating them and showing concern for the environment, Wilson says. The co-op does considerable N monitoring with its customers as part of the N-Watch program. N-Watch involves nitrate soil testing to estimate the concentration of plant-available N as the year progresses. That helps determine sidedress needs. This year, the co-op also has helped monitor 37 fi eld-tile drains for nitrates and phosphates.
Capture full potential. Service providers should scrutinize nutrient application, Wilson says, because today’s high-yielding corn hybrids are not receiving the full complement of nutrients they need. Farmers stand to reap sizeable benefits with the right guidance.
“We are kind of stretching our bounds on what we’ve always been comfortable with, fertility-wise,” he says. “We need to look at things in a broader picture. We are still fertilizing for corn genetics that we had 10 to 12 years ago.”
He points to many Bt hybrids, which need increased zinc, and “race-horse” hybrids, which need different fertilizer combinations late in the season. And he says secondary and micronutrients play an important role helping corn metabolize basic nutrients.
“If a corn plant is lacking sulfur that it draws from the soil—and sulfur is a key component of chlorophyll and amino acid production— even though we’ve got tons of N in the soil, N will not be drawn into the plant effi ciently to increase yield,” Wilson says. That realization has led to an increase in micronutrient sales.
Under the microscope. Whether in the Chesapeake Bay or southeastern Illinois, your customers are concerned with how nutrient practices refl ect on their businesses. They don’t want to be blamed for damaging the environment.
Producers can see the crop and soil-health benefi ts of the 4R program. The initiative also has been
successful because farmers want to be good stewards while avoiding government scrutiny. With more regulation likely in the future, producers and retailers will continue to work hand in hand to manage nutrient application across rowcrop country.
“Farmers want to be anonymous,” Wilson says. “They want to do their job, grow their crop and get the best return on investment possible with the least impact on the environment. They want to do the right thing.”
*This article was originally featured in the Augst issue of Ag Professional. www.AgProfessional.com