N-WATCH Soil Testing Program Helps Improve Nitrogen Management

In fall 2012, the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP) launched the N-WATCH soil testing program to educate the agricultural industry about residual nitrogen left over from the 2012 drought-stricken corn crop and to provide farmers a tool to inventory and track the residual nitrogen. Great interest in the program resulted in over 300 field locations throughout the state participating in N-WATCH.

CBMP has been actively working with farmers, agriculture organizations, universities and government agencies to increase knowledge and adoption of scientifically based nutrient management practices to minimize environmental impact, optimize input use and maximize crop yields. In addition to N-WATCH, the Keep it for the Crop (KIC) by 2025 initiative is a detailed program of education and outreach. Led by Dan Schaefer, CBMP’s director of nutrient stewardship, KIC is recognized for its innovative efforts to engage agriculture retailers and farmers in adopting in-field nutrient rate trials and to manage nutrient applications with a systems-based approach based on the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship: right source, right rate, right time, right place.

Steve Stierwalt, a central Illinois farmer, comments that “because of the N-Watch results, I cut back on the amount of nitrogen I would have normally used last fall. I now have better understanding of the nitrogen cycle and the effect of water on nitrates so I will expand my acres in the N-Watch program in 2013.”

The Illinois Department of Agriculture fertilizer sales reports reveal that farmers reduced fall nitrogen application by 63,506 tons in the fall of 2012 compared to 2011. This clearly demonstrates that farmers are changing their management of applied nitrogen.

Mike Plumer, who is CBMP’s coordinator, also provided programming in 105 cover crop management programs in 2012-2013 across the Midwest, reaching 10,187 farmers and government agency personnel. A Web-based cover crop “decision tool” was developed for Illinois which allows Illinois farmers to select the best cover crops for their farm. Cover crops have been shown to be an excellent management tool to hold nutrients in the field, with early monitoring results showing significant reduction in nutrient losses.

CBMP works in cooperation with the University of Illinois to continue to develop ways to help farmers increase utilization of soil nitrogen through sustainable changes in management practices. Dr. Howard Brown, GROWMARK, an agronomist and CBMP interim director of nutrient utilization, leads the program and is collecting data, coordinating the research and expanding the science and adoption of these programs.

“The challenge agriculture faces with nitrogen management is complex since it is significantly affected by both the environment and soil,” he said. “It is not just about how and when a farmer applies nitrogen, the environment can always over-rule decisions made. It is more about providing the farmer with management tools to minimize the risk of losing nitrogen as a result of the environment and to improve utilization by the growing crop.

“The N-WATCH program is a new tool for farmers to use in their continued quest for better nitrogen management. Farmers and agriculture retailers take seriously their commitment to environmental stewardship,” Brown added.

CBMP continues to develop and promote practices to reduce nutrient losses from the agriculture sector. These efforts are funded in part by the Nutrient Research & Education Council.

CBMP’s members include Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, Illinois Pork Producers and Syngenta Crop Protection. For information about KIC 2025, cover crop management, or how to participate in the N-WATCH program, contact the Council on Best Management Practices at 309-827-2774.

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