Farmers gambling on making more profits with less nitrogen
A decade-old program continues to ease participants into using less fertilizer.
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Anthony Beery gestures across the road from his dairy farm's milking barn to a gently sloping field with just the stubble of a harvested corn crop left. He remembers, about a decade ago, when heavy rainstorms would wash so much dirt off the field that a skid-loader was needed to scrape it from the road below.
Thanks in part to no-till practices Beery has incorporated on his Mount Crawford, VA, farm's 450 acres of feed crops, that field barely leaks water these days and the soil stays put.
But he is always looking to do more to improve soil and nutrient retention, especially when it comes to keeping that slippery chemical element called nitrogen.
Nitrogen has long been in the farmer's kit for fueling fast-growing crops like corn and wheat. But, if more is applied than the plants can absorb, excess nitrogen can run off of fields and into local streams and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, where, along with too much phosphorous, it is a top contributor to an unbalanced ecosystem.
Corn production in particular is determined by the combination of growing conditions and the amount of nitrogen applied. If a farmer gambles on good conditions, and applies enough nitrogen to maximize production, his profits can soar if those good growing conditions occur. If there are good conditions and he did not apply enough fertilizer, then his production, and profits, will be less than the maximum.
But if the farmer applies fertilizer for maximum production and doesn't have ideal conditions — which is often the case — he has increased both his expenses and the likelihood of increased runoff.
"The problem is, if you never fertilize for a good crop, you never get one. And you can't stay in business guaranteeing a bad crop," Beery explained.
Beery volunteered this year to participate in a program that's been offered through the American Farmland Trust for much of the last decade, one that slowly chips away at cost and other barriers keeping farmers from adopting new practices.
Jim Baird, AFT's mid-Atlantic director, said the program, funded through the federal farm bill, aims to address the gap between the knowledge being churned out by the research world and the rate at which it's being applied. He understands the risks that farmers take when they adopt new practices, and that incentives and cost-sharing help make that leap worthwhile.
"The farmer is making a huge gamble... If it's a bad year, you waste money (on fertilizer). But if you don't put down enough, you could miss out on a bumper year that could make three mediocre years OK," Baird said. "That's a scary proposition for a farmer."
The AFT's Best Management Practices Challenge provides a cushion for farmers willing to try practices that benefit the environment but have the potential to impact their bottom lines.
Since 1998, the challenge programs have taken place on more than 9,000 acres of farmland in seven mid-Atlantic and Midwest states. The AFT aims to triple the number of acres and farmers involved in these programs, which have proven especially successful among reluctant farmers. Along with nitrogen reduction, the programs encourage farmers to experiment with conservation measures such as reduced tillage and practices that sequester carbon on farms to reduce greenhouse gases.
The nitrogen reduction program provides on-farm technicians to test the soil's nutrient absorption throughout the season, typically recommending lower applications on one section of the field as a sort of demonstration. If the rest of the farmer's field has better yields than the test strip at harvest, the program pays the difference, minus the cost savings of applying less nitrogen. It's a guarantee that the farmer won't lose money on the experiment — and an investment in the hope that he could save money on nitrogen in the long-term.
Along with helping a handful of farmers absorb the risk of reducing nitrogen, the program has been amassing data to help farmers hone their applications in the future. Farmers like Beery — whose focus at the 325-cow dairy farm is on growing corn, soybeans and alfalfa for feed — have their practices down to a well-tweaked science.
Beery volunteered for the program this growing season, despite some skepticism about what he perceives as an unstated premise — that most farmers could stand to reduce their nitrogen applications.
"I was hoping to see a loss (on that strip), just because it would prove me right," Beery said with a grin during a farm visit in late October.
He had already seen some of the results, and there wasn't much difference between the section of corn that received slightly less nitrogen and the rest of his field. That's what program organizers like to see, although the small distinction this year may be because it was a rough year for the crop. Beery said he saw a 30-percent reduction in his corn yields from the drought.
Rosemary Liskey worked with Beery and three other farms as a summer technician for the project, conducting tests to assess nitrogen absorption and measuring the difference in yield at season's end.
"Overall, there's not much difference, which is what we wanted," Liskey said of the results at Beery's farm.
Based on her tests, Liskey reduced the nitrogen application by about 20 pounds on the 60-foot wide test strip — a difference Beery pointed out is fairly "negligible" in the big picture. Twenty pounds of chemical nitrogen costs him about $15.
Computer models estimate that the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay has been slashed by about 90 million pounds a year since the mid-1980s, when about 367 million pounds reached the Chesapeake during an average year. Still, a reduction of nearly 60 million more pounds is needed in the coming decade to meet the goals of the "pollution diet" placed on the region by the EPA at the end of 2010. The diet establishes a total maximum daily load for how much nitrogen and phosphorous can enter the Bay — and requires that more than half of the necessary measures be in place in the next five years to return the Bay to health by 2025.
As the largest contributor of nitrogen to the watershed, agricultural practices in the region have long been a focus of Bay cleanup efforts. But the watershed's population of 17.5 million people as of 2011 and increased development — not to mention known sources of pollution feeding directly into waterways — all need to be addressed to reach the Bay's aggressive restoration goals, advocates say.
"There have been significant moves by farmers to clean up their act. We're working at it," Beery said of the progress. "The bottom line is you cannot predict everything; you cannot control everything."
Beery said the BMP challenge is a good program "as far as it goes" in helping farmers try new practices that could benefit the Bay. But, as much as runoff from farms can be and has been reduced, it cannot be totally eliminated, he said. He called the soil a sponge, "and I'm trying to make it the best sponge, the most absorptive and retentive that there is."
While funding for the nitrogen program may come from the conservation pool, Baird pointed out that its goal is not to restrict farmers' ability to fertilize — some years their crops may need more and absorb more — so much as to provide a safe opportunity to try less. If it also saves the farmers money (and helps restore the Bay), so much the better.
The program ends up paying a small amount to farmers for reduced yields about 40 percent of the time, Baird said. The rising cost of corn and comparatively low cost for nitrogen is making it harder to persuade farmers to hold back on applications — and making the program that much more necessary on farms that should. The program's funding is sheltered from making exorbitant payments for lost corn by experimenting on a small section of the farmer's field.
But sometimes it's just the demonstration that helps ease farmers into change.
Baird said about 80 percent of farmers who participate in the yearlong program continue to adopt reduced nitrogen applications afterward. Many do so with the environment in mind, wanting to do their part while considering that one day such measures could be required.
Which brings us to Beery's biggest concern about the program. While it produces good data for farmers to use on their fields, he doesn't want to see the new averages become laws that limit him from fertilizing for a good year when he has one.
He pointed out that the plants could mine extra nutrients from the soil to take advantage of a banner year — but that such nutrient stores would be depleted over time, making normal nitrogen applications less effective in the future. "The problem is often this information gets passed on to regulators and people say, 'Look, we're over-applying nitrogen. We're gonna pass a law telling farmers not to apply as much nitrogen.' Well, you've just missed the whole picture. You've got a little snapshot, a little piece of the puzzle, but you haven't looked at the whole puzzle," he said.
Beery is eager to see in January the results from multiple farms that participated in the program this year. He's hopeful the data will improve his annual nitrogen guessing game.
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