It Begins with the 4Rs


August 10, 2017

Consider nutrient loss. Nutrient reduction strategies focus on reducing nutrient loss to improve water quality in a reasonable and cost effective manner. Fantastic, but let’s also consider nutrient loss as it affects a farmer’s bottom line. Conservation practices like grassed waterways, buffers and biofilters are absolutely part of the mitigation equation to reduce nutrient loss from the field to surface water – to argue otherwise is foolish. But, preventing applied nutrients from initially leaving the root zone is what protects a farm’s fertilizer investment.

It’s a given, whether using commercial or organic sources, that fertilizer application is a key component of successful crop production. Driven by cost or conservation (hopefully both), responsible stewardship of fertilizer inputs is a necessity not always fully realized. On nutrient stewardship, or conversely on nutrient loss, these three points drive my thinking.

  1. Farmers must be profitable,
  2. We don’t control the weather, and
  3. We must reduce our impact on the environment.

Fertilizer costs can be 40 percent of a farmer’s input costs. For 2015, Iowa State Extension estimated fertilizer to be $130 per acre for 145 bu corn on corn where total per acre seed and chemical inputs were $328. If a farmer loses 15-20% of their fertilizer inputs, irrespective of yield loss, that’s a loss of $20-25 per acre. If you are farming a couple thousand acres, a $40,000 loss adds up fast. Farmers need to protect their investment and prevent nutrients from leaving the root zone. Fertilizer best management practices (BMPs) tied to source, rate, time and place are the best place to start a sequence of decisions which goes on to consider tillage practices, cover crops and conservation structures.

Weather patterns have been highly variable this decade; between the 2012 Midwestern drought and some of the highest rainfalls on record, what is normal? Further, while a necessity to the cropping system, water is the conduit that moves nutrients away from the root zone. Yes, right choices for nutrient source, rate, time and place won’t reduce losses to zero, and in many areas won’t be enough. But they will reduce the amount that needs to be controlled and trapped—while keeping the nutrient for the crop.

Nutrients lost from agriculture have an impact on the environment. While many sectors contribute nutrients that impact algal blooms and hypoxic zones, we own a piece of that pie. It makes economic sense to prevent nutrient loss from the root zone, and it’s a necessity for sustaining production systems and the environment. Knowledge regarding the role of 4R practices continues to grow, research evaluating their environmental impact is progressing, yet reports indicate greater adoption is needed. 

 As I note each time I speak on nutrient loss, the conjunction for implementing preventative 4R practices or mitigating conservation practices is not OR, it is AND, because it is both. BUT, practices to prevent nutrient loss are a good place to start. They affect the grower’s bottom line.

All sectors of the fertilizer industry are on board with increasing 4R adoption. Fertilizer application practices are at the center of our industry. Say it’s a nice slogan if you want, but applying the right source, at the right rate, the right time and in the right place provides a unifying and actionable message. It has brought significant resources and voices to addressing water quality challenges and preventing nutrient loss. 

This blog was originally written in October 2015 for the website Agren.