What’s the difference between a nice slogan and an effective conservation program? In the case of nutrient management, it can be quite a big difference. For the last several years, I have heard and read much about the 4R Nutrient Stewardship strategy from many organizations like The Fertilizer Institute and the International Plant Nutrition Institute. The philosophy of the 4R strategy is said to be a science-based approach that offers enhanced environmental protection. Certainly, the 4R strategy has nice ring to it. It kind of rolls off the tongue, representing the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, with the right placement. But unfortunately a catchy slogan doesn’t get agriculture very far down the road.
Furthermore, I think the 4R slogan is misleading and sends the message that if we follow the mantra “the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, with the right placement” we will be finally able to settle the nutrient problem. I did some fact-checking for Iowa. Based on modeling done in the Raccoon River Watershed, if 100% of farmers fully adopt and implement the 4R strategy, we can only achieve about 15-20% of Iowa’s total nitrogen and phosphorus reduction goals.
To me, there is something even more troubling. I am concerned that the 4R program puts the burden of nutrient management implementation solely on the backs of ag retailers. Looking at it from the farmer’s perspective, the 4R strategy leads us to believe there is no need for other conservation measures like cover crops, waterways, basins, and no-till.
In my opinion, Dr. Jorge Delgado hit the nail squarely on the head when he said “the 4Rs alone will not reduce the off-site transport of nutrients. Precision conservation needs to be merged with precision farming”(Delgado, 2014). Precision conservation practices that need to be considered and used applied also include grass waterways, buffers, crop residue management, no-till, and others.
Farmers are running out of second chances and opportunities for do-overs. They are under enormous societal and political pressure to get things right. They can’t wait any longer. They need the right strategy and they need it now. In five years, I don’t think farmers can risk facing the court of public opinion with the excuse they were presented with the wrong strategy and they would like another chance – a do-over – and more time. That is not likely to happen. Ag retailers are the trusted advisor of farmers and farmers trust their ag retailers to steer them in the right direction.
If you are an ag retailer, make sure your sustainability message exceeds the 4Rs. Let farmers know that in order to reach nutrient reduction goals they will need to include soil conservation practices like grassed waterways, sediment basins, cover crops, no-till, ponds, buffers, and wetlands. Because those practices will have a significantly greater impact on water quality goals than the 4Rs.
You hit the target with this piece. The 4R’s are, or can be, part of a systems approach to addressing our nutrient and soil loss problems. Alone, they do not stand a chance.
In Ohio, algae in Lake Erie (and other lakes) is the biggest fertility issue. Solving problems caused by P is the focus. Kevin King, ARS-USDA, has several paired watersheds for drainage research. This summer, with what seemed like 40 days of rain, the amount of N in drain tile water went down later because the fields ran out of N. On the other hand, the dissolved P remained the same, meaning that there continues to be an abundance of P in the soil. Norm Fausey, the leader of our ARS unit thinks the “problem” may be that when the % of P in the water drops, then nature causes the P that’s attached to soil gives up enough P to dissolve in the water and bring it up. If this is true, we’ll have a P problem for years even if we applied zero P.
Others have said previously, the the algae problem might persist if we did not apply any P for 10 years because there is so much P in the system.
Kevin made another point. Based on his information (backed by soil sampling by Rafiq Islam) less than half the fields need ANY P added. (I think most people agree that corn needs a little starter fertilizer to get going.)
I’ll make another point. If all P was injected (not incorporated, but injected) instead of applied with a spinner truck, that one change would do more than any other changes. Deere dealers in NW Ohio adapted 3 implements to do exactly that in 2014. Now 2 or 3 other manufacturers have done the same, so this equipment is widely available.
Of course I agree with your points about no-till, cover crops, etc.
We in Iowa are fortunate to have an abundance of water, even a nuisance of water. Look at the water management in Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, California and consider if Iowa growers intensively managed their water similarly how far ahead in production Iowa would be. Conserving and using every drop of nutrient would be just the beginning.
Good points you have made. In our area water conservation is more of a concern than soil because of our depleting Ogallala aquifer. Besides having my consulting company I also have a position with Wilbur-Ellis Company and it is frustrating working with people within Wilbur-Ellis who are only concerned with high yields and more sales and don’t realize that this water supply is going to define our future in this area. My position is to provide service and products that help the grower with productivity that gives the best return while conserving our valuable resource. Wilbur-Ellis is on the leading edge as far as offering service and technologies for good returns but has nothing as far as water management as is the same with the other big crop input retailers. The seed companies are now realizing this need and our now offering some products in the way of genetics and management programs, but this needs to be an effort from all in the agriculture industry all the way thru marketing.
I am trying to get my growers to calculate their yields by bushels per acre inch (precipitation
& irrigation) as well as bushels per acre.