This post really is a vital foundational piece to understanding one of the biggest goals for Illinois farmers in the coming years. We want to get better at understanding and using the practices that preserve water quality. If you missed this the first time around – or just need a refresher – read on!
The IL Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy was released last week. It was a big deal for farmers. But maybe (probably?) you have no idea what it is or what it means. If so, this post is for you.
Farmers apply nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients to their fields to help crops grow and maximize yields. This is pretty much like you applying MiracleGro to your potted house plants or your garden, but on a huge scale.
In a perfect world, farmers apply the nutrients, the plants grow enormously big, strong, and prolific because they are “eating” the nutrients, and everyone is happy. But what happens when the nutrients are applied at the wrong time? In the wrong amount? Or the plants don’t grow and don’t use the nutrients like what happened to farmers during the drought?
In each of those cases, the nutrients are left in the field. And when the spring rains come, the nutrients hitch a ride with the running water to the nearest ditch, then a creek, then a stream, a river, and end up exactly where we don’t want them.
This is bad for clean water, but also bad for farmers. They paid for those nutrients (and nutrients are VERY expensive!) and they really want the plants to use them instead of watching them escape the field.
So the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy is basically exactly what it says – its a list of ways that farmers can help minimize nutrient loss from their fields. The EPA has written the list, and now they leave it to ag associations and agribusiness to help farmers understand and implement the strategies on their own fields.
Of course IL Corn is doing just that – along with Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Council on Best Management Practices, Illinois Pork Producers Association, GROWMARK, Syngenta, and others.
What are some of the things farmers are being asked to do?
1. Change the timing of their nitrogen applications. It makes a lot of sense for farmers to apply nutrients when the plant needs them most to grow. The problem is that equipment and availability doesn’t always make it possible for every farmer to apply their nitrogen at the exact same time of year … but we’re working on helping farmers through that.
2. Change the amount of nutrients they apply. Farmers like this one because applying fewer nutrients means paying less money. We’re encouraging farmers to do soil testing throughout their field, determine which areas of the field need a boost and which do not, and then apply nutrients only where needed. New GPS technology helps with this and makes the process very efficient.
3. Grow cover crops. We’ve figured out that for some farmers, applying nutrients in the fall, but also planting a crop that will grow a bit in the fall, hold the nitrogen within the plant through the winter, and then kill that crop before planting corn in the spring can work very well. The techniques will be different for every farmer in Illinois because of our diverse weather from north to south.
These are just a couple of the options, but each can make a big difference for individual farmers and for the water supply!
Maybe hearing from a real farmer will help! This is Garry Niemeyer, Illinois farmer, talking about what his conservation plan is for one of his fields near the Springfield watershed.
Do you have more questions about clean water, nutrient loss, or the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy? I’d love to answer them!