Nutrient management benefits you, the environment

 If you are familiar at all with agronomy and read the words “Nutrient Management Plan,” you probably picture a huge binder full of government documents—a bunch of boring tables and graphs that don’t mean anything to 99% of people who try to read it. With precision technology and the ability to process data in ways that show what’s happening on the farm, those days are over. 

There are many benefits to sitting down and making a plan, whether it’s fertility or other aspects of crop production. Planning allows you to account for all the steps necessary to take your production in a positive direction. The following are environmental risks that can be mitigated and averted by planning and following a nutrient management plan for both crop and pasture production. 

Managing N, P, K, micronutrients and pH. In agronomics, high yields depend on matching fertility inputs to crop removals and ensuring the proper amount of nutrients are banked in the soil. It turns out that areas of high productivity also pose a much lower risk environmentally than areas of poor fertility. The reason is simple—if high yields are being attained, then the plants are healthy and quickly taking up any fertilizer placed there. In areas that return low yields due to a lack of soil nutrients or other extraneous factors, plants aren’t as ready to uptake applied nutrients. This leaves those nutrients vulnerable to loss via leaching or binding to soil particles and being washed away. Applied nutrients must also be available to the plant, which is why balancing soil pH is critical to the success of any plan. If nutrients are in adequate supply, but the soil is too acidic to allow uptake, they are vulnerable to loss. Lack of plant growth also impacts residue on the soil surface. The less residue, the more erosion. Rain events can move more soil in areas of low fertility, resulting in even more nutrient losses. The best thing we can do is keep our most productive areas productive and build fertility in sub-par areas.

Correcting areas of high soil-test phosphorus. Missouri has a robust livestock industry, and where there is—or was—livestock, there is manure. Repeated applications of manure on feedlots, pastures and areas of high animal concentration can lead to high soil-test phosphorus values. Because phosphorus binds to soil particles, excess P levels are prone to loss from runoff. When areas of high P are identified, it’s important to mitigate erosion and initiate changes in a fertility plan to lower risk of nutrient loading in our waterways. Again, maintaining the top layer of soil on the field is critical to minimizing nutrient loss.

Having a plan for nitrogen. Many folks talk about nitrogen planning, making split applications, using inhibitors and similar practices but fail to follow through in implementation. All of these things used in conjunction really do pay big dividends in how much total N gets applied to the field, how much of that N is plant-available at the right time, and, the most environmentally important, how much is left at the end of the season. Since nitrogen is generally paid for, there’s certainly benefit to making sure we hit the right target and don’t leave a significant amount in the field. This can be done by making sure we account for inputs from all fertilizer products, know our soil and consider any losses. A written plan can keep you on track for knowing how to steward N properly.

Combining all these aspects of nutrient management planning can make your farm not just more environmentally friendly but also significantly more efficient. Grid sampling and planning through the Nutri-Track program is a great avenue. Recently, around 25 MFA personnel have become certified as technical service providers, which enables them to write Nutrient Management Plans for USDA-NRCS financial assistance. For a plan to get financial assistance, an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) application must be completed with your local NRCS office during the fall signup. Our MFA technical service providers are experts in managing your fertilizer inputs to help meet yield goals and to put together production plans covering the entire soil-test cycle. 

If you are interested ways to maximize your fertilizer investment and make your farm less environmentally sensitive through nutrient management, contact me or any member of MFA’s Precision Agronomy team.

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