FARMERS GETTING BETTER AT MANAGING NITROGEN USE

Please join us for Water Quality Wednesdays in August as we celebrate Water Quality month!  Illinois corn farmers are committed to minimizing agriculture’s effect on water quality and this month, we’ll tell you how!

This is the time of year that the Hypoxia Task Force does its sampling of the oxygen in the Gulf waters around the Mississippi River where it enters the Gulf.  The sampling takes a few weeks to get an accurate idea of what impact the Mississippi River water has on the oxygen levels which impact the marine life in the Gulf. 

The volume of water, organic debris, soil, fertilizers and everything else that was washed into the rivers with all the flooding this year will have an effect on the Gulf.  In fact, the water flow of the Mississippi River is one of the highest flows since the 1930’s and has exceeded the big flows in 1973.   Experts are expecting all this water and debris will create the largest hypoxic zone to date.  Try to imagine all the water from North Dakota, Montana to Pennsylvania flowing into one small area of the Gulf.  Then imagine all the land, urban property, cities, businesses and homes that were flooded sending their debris down the river.  That amounts to an amazing amount of organic debris, soil sediment and other pollutants all getting deposited into a small area in the Gulf.  It should be obvious that there will be an impact.

Since the Mississippi River drainage is composed mainly of cropland, agriculture has been pointed to as one of the sources of the organic matter and nitrogen that contribute to the hypoxia.  There is no doubt that the flooding of 100’s of thousands of acres did move a large quantity of crop residue, soil and fertility into the rivers that eventually go to the Gulf.  It is also possible that the very high water levels scoured out river beds, collapsed creek banks, river oxbows and lakes sending old sediment and nutrients down the river.  This contribution to the river has been called “the Legacy effect,” moving old deposits to the Gulf in high water events.

Agriculture has been increasingly diligent in decreasing the amount of nitrogen added to raise crops, in fact reducing the amount of nitrogen applied per bushel of yield by over 33% since the 1970’s.  Reduced tillage and precision fertilizer use and placement has also reduced the chance of losing nitrogen and phosphorus. 

In reality, agriculture is continually increasing its management skills to reduce nitrogen losses and spending their own money to develop new best management practices to increasingly protect the environment.  Each year there is a reduced chance and lower level of agriculture contributing nutrients to the Gulf to cause hypoxia.

Water quality is a priority for Illinois farmers.  Through continued research and growing interest in preserving the resources in our care, farmers are getting better and better at growing more with less and having a minimal impact on soil and water quality.

Mike Plumer
Former U of I Extension Specialist & Conservation Guru

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