With corn acreage in the region jumping by more than 200,000 acres this year—and expected to increase even more in the future—leading agricultural researchers say states need to act quickly to boost conservation programs that would minimize runoff.

Cornfields, especially if not aggressively managed to control runoff, can leak larger amounts of nitrogen into ground and surface waters than any other major crop in the region.

That has spurred fears that a wide-scale conversion of farmland to corn production to meet demand caused by the booming ethanol market could reverse progress in the Chesapeake cleanup effort.

But the extent to which the corn-based ethanol boom becomes a bust for the Bay hinges in part on whether state and federal agencies are successful in promoting and funding practices shown to be effective at curbing nitrogen losses, say Russ Brinsfield and Ken Staver, scientists at the University of Maryland’s Wye Research and Education Center.

Brinsfield and Staver have been studying ways to reduce nitrogen losses from cornfields for more than two decades—their research is largely responsible for the increased emphasis in recent years on planting cover crops in the fall that can absorb excess nitrate-nitrogen left in the soil after row crops are harvested.

“Corn has always been the dominant grain in the mid-Atlantic, and it has always been the key to efforts to reduce nutrient losses from crop land,” Staver said. “It is something that, whether corn acreage goes up or not, we are going to have to do better on to meet the nutrient reduction goals.”

Corn is the most widely planted row crop in the watershed, followed by soybeans, and both can result in large nitrogen loads to water.

Corn requires large amounts of nitrogen to reach maximum yields—but is inefficient in nitrogen use, especially if growing conditions are not optimal. That can leave significant amounts of the water-soluble form of the nutrient—nitrate-nitrogen—to leach into groundwater or to be washed off the surface and directly into streams.

Soybeans are nitrogen-fixing plants—they draw nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. But soybeans still leave elevated amounts of nitrate-nitrogen in the soil after harvest, although typically less than corn.

A major concern is that as ethanol demand pushes corn prices higher, corn will displace soybeans, resulting in more nitrogen reaching local waterways, and ultimately the Bay.

Staver and Brinsfield said their research shows that nitrogen losses from corn can be kept to about the same level as those from soybeans. “We did everything optimally,” Brinsfield acknowledged. But he said the combination of cover crops and carefully applied nutrients can actually reduce nitrogen losses from cornfields to less than those of from soybean fields.

The problem has been that enough funding to fully implement those practices—especially cover crops—has never been available.

Maryland has made the most headway, largely because of a $30-a-year fee on septic systems owners that was levied as part of the “flush tax” legislation in 2004 that also imposed a $2.50-a-month fee on those hooked to sewer systems. The sewer fee has helped to pay for wastewater treatment plant upgrades, while 40 percent of the septic fee money went to cover crops.

As a result, last year, farmers planted 230,000 acres, the most ever, though still short of the 750,000-acre cover crop goal in the state tributary strategies, which guide cleanup efforts. This year, the program has $8.3 million—which should further increase acreage—but that is still short of the estimated $24 million the state says is needed to meet its goals.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Brinsfield said. “There’s no doubt about it, but we simply need more money in the program.”

Pennsylvania and Virginia lag far behind in cover crop acreage, according to figures from the Bay Program.

Lawmakers from the region are pushing for changes in the 2007 Farm Bill that would boost federal support for cover crops and other farm conservation programs.

While the conversion from soybeans to corn can be managed with adequate resources, Brinsfield said the equation changes if low-runoff lands such as buffers, marginal lands which have been abandoned, pastures or hay fields are converted to corn.

Those land types all have significantly less nitrogen losses per acre than cornfields, even when the corn is intensively managed with the suite of management practices used in the long-running experiments by Brinsfield and Stave. And, Brinsfield said, there were few additional measures to achieve further significant reductions from cornfields, although he said that promoting the injection of fertilizer—rather than land application—would help.

“When you move in the direction of converting those acres into row crops, that is trouble,” he said. “We ought to be careful to do all we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. But I don’t know how you do that when you have an international demand for food and fuel of some sort, and a diminishing land base at least in the Bay region because of development.”

Staver said the concern over increased corn demand for ethanol has served as a valuable reminder about the level of effort—and investment—needed to meet water quality goals for the Bay.

“This should have been the attitude 15 years ago. The only way this is going to work is to take a fairly proactive role about getting the nutrient loads down,” Staver said. “That’s our situation whether corn acreage goes up or not. If we don’t do those things, we are not going to make our reduction goals.”

Paper Makes Biofuel Recommendations

State and federal leaders need to do a better job of planning to deal with the projected increase in biofuels production if they are to maintain the health of the Chesapeake, according to a paper from a regional scientific organization.

The paper, which stems from an April symposium on biofuels and water quality in the Chesapeake region, said about 15 ethanol plants are planned for the mid-Atlantic, which will dramatically increase corn demand.

If all 15 plants are built, they would require about 370 million bushels of corn—1.5 times the region’s current corn production, the paper said. The Bay watershed already imports corn from the Midwest to meet livestock feed demand.

The paper, in line with other estimates, said that if corn planting in the region expands by 1 million acres in coming years as some suggest, it could result in nearly 17 million pounds of additional nitrogen runoff a year unless further actions are taken to reduce runoff.

Among its recommendations:

  • The federal government should prohibit the removal of land from the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take marginal lands out of production, until existing contracts expire. Many have advocated opening such lands to corn production.
  • Federal funding should be increased for low-impact alternative crops, such as perennial grasses, as alternative crops for ethanol.
  • More funding should be available to farmers to plant cover crops, which reduce nitrogen runoff.
  • Incentives should be offered to farmers to implement nutrient management plans, which help to optimize fertilizer applications and reduce runoff.

The paper is from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Quality Program, a partnership between land grant universities in the region and the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Program.

The full paper is available at www.mawaterquality.org.