A Fertilizer Resolution For 2012

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New Year’s resolutions come in all different forms. Many people want to give something up: “I’m going to quit smoking.” Others vow to start doing something: “I’m going to give more money to charities.” Some promise to make a lifestyle change: “I’m going to get into better shape.”

Despite the personal motivation behind these intentions, most New Year’s resolutions will fail. Why? Poor planning. A poorly planned, vaguely defined mission is destined for failure. Take the example from above: “I’m going to give more money to charities.” How much money? To which charities? How frequently? The lack of a clear plan makes it unlikely that this resolution will be successful.

Taking The First Step  

So as we move into a new cropping season, how can growers and advisers ensure that their fertilizer goals for 2012 have the best chance for success? By managing plant nutrition according to the principles of 4R Nutrient Stewardship.

4R Nutrient Stewardship is a holistic approach to nutrient management planning that considers economic, environmental and social dimensions of a sustainable agricultural system. At the core of the 4R approach is a simple concept — apply the right source of nutrient at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. What is right, however, will vary according to many factors including soil, climate, cropping system and management objectives; thus implementation of the appropriate combination of the four “rights” is knowledge-intensive and site-specific.

The first step in developing a 4R Nutrient Stewardship plan is to set sustainability goals for the farm or enterprise, which will include specific performance targets related to economic, environmental and social outcomes. The goals will be defined by the manager in partnership with stakeholders (i.e., agribusiness, consumers and the general public) who have an interest in the impacts of the enterprise. Setting priorities on long-term sustainability and stakeholder involvement distinguish a 4R stewardship plan from traditional nutrient management plans.

Next, the manager will gather needed production information to formulate and implement a plan consisting of the right practices for the enterprise. While stakeholders are needed to define the goals, managers are best equipped to choose the practices. While specific practices chosen will vary locally, the scientific principles that drive the decision-making process are the same globally.

For example, consider nitrogen (N) fertilizer timing for a spring-planted crop. Key scientific principles that would apply universally will include assessing dynamics of crop uptake and soil supply and determining nutrient loss risks. Once the manager has applied these principles to the information gathered for his enterprise such as crop type, soil characteristics, planting date, expected emergence date, weather conditions, etc., he can choose the right practice; pre-plant, at planting, in-season, or a split-application. It is important to remember when selecting practices that the 4Rs are interconnected and a balance of effort among them is appropriate. A decision regarding one of the four rights affects and is affected by the other three. In the timing decision, field conditions and N loss risks might have suggested that an in-season N application was most appropriate. But if the manager is using a controlled-release N source, then other timing options might be feasible as well. If the manager had been making pre-plant applications to this field, then making timing or source changes might result in a subsequent rate change as well since nutrient losses are being mitigated.

Considering the 4Rs as interconnected also helps avoid placing too much emphasis on one at the expense of overlooking the others. The 4R practices selected must work in synchrony with each other and with the surrounding cropping system and management environment.

The Final Step

Finally, performance indicators must be chosen to determine whether the practices selected were successful in achieving the objectives for the enterprise. Enterprise managers or advisers cannot select the most important performance indicator on their own. Stakeholder involvement is needed to identify the indicators that represent progress toward the sustainability goals considered important by all. No single or group of indicators can measure all of the impacts of fertilizer application. Stakeholders will select indicators related to issues of greatest concern. Some of these might include yield, water quality or working conditions. Managers will tend to focus on indicators that they are rewarded for like crop yield and quality, or profitability, which most enterprises depend upon for survival. Motivation for managers to recognize environmental and social aspects of performance can come through the establishment of reward mechanisms such as greenhouse gas emission and water quality credit trading programs, which various stakeholder groups such as regulatory policy makers and agronomic scientists can be instrumental in establishing.

As we move into the 2012 cropping season, don’t say, “I will do better with fertilizer management.” If this is the intention, then change your declaration to “I will do better with fertilizer management by developing a 4R Nutrient Stewardship plan that will:

•     Define sustainability goals for the enterprise important to the manager, adviser, and various other stakeholders.

•     Identify the right source-rate-time-place combination selected by the manager and adviser for the specific site based on established scientific principles and local considerations.

•     Document the success of the practices according to performance indicators selected by the stakeholders.”

Steve Phillips is Southeast North America regional director for the International Plant Nutrition Institute.

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