The Rise Of The 4Rs

The concept of the perfect blend of production practices to maximize input efficiency, yields and environmental protection is hardly new. In fact, experts at the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) would trace its definition back some 20-plus years, developed through cooperation between the fertilizer industry and the scientific communities. But the idea has taken on new life over the past two years as The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) has expanded its implementation and outreach effort on the 4R initiative for fertilizer: Apply the Right Product at the Right Time at the Right Rate in the Right Place.

The current collaborative effort is the work of several organizations, including TFI, IPNI, the Canadian Fertilizer Institute (CFI) and the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA). IPNI provides the lead reading the science of the 4Rs, says Lara Moody, director of stewardship programs at TFI, while TFI and CFI work closely with IPNI to take the lead on outreach.

An important part of the 4R program is www.nutrientstewardship.org, launched in March 2011. It contains a host of helpful production information and links, and it introduces the organizations — more than 40 at this point — that partner with TFI in outreach and implementation. For instance, partners can contribute news articles and information about their initiatives. The site is a central meeting place to demonstrate the collaboration of organizations who implement the 4Rs and spread the message on the benefits, explains Moody. It’s also the place dealers can sign up to receive the 4R Quarterly Newsletter, a publication already going to more than 1,000 believers.

Dealers On Board

The retailers we talked with have actually been implementing many of the concepts behind the 4Rs for years. Mike Twining, vice president of sales and marketing, Willard Agri-Service, Lynch, MD, notes company founder De Willard’s original focus on liquid fertilizers that could be custom blended field-by-field based on soil tests still drives the firm’s thought processes 40 years later.

In 2009 the 4R concept “intrigued” Mike Wilson, agronomist with Wabash Valley Service Co., Grayville, IL, because it stated what his firm had been working toward since 1994 — using all the tools (soil testing, tissue testing, yield and planting data, soil type, etc.) available to decide on an appropriate course of action for a fertilizer prescription, be it soil- or foliar-applied.

And while the 4R concept may be simple, implementing the systems needed to practice it can be challenging and costly. For instance, Wabash Valley has created two departments within the company to deal with the challenges: an Agronomy Services Division offers the services needed to assess field needs and prescribe solutions, while a Specialty Products Division evaluates different products, both soil and foliar, to see if and where they fit in a total nutrient program. The company has made a substantial investment in people and equipment to help customers adapt. And shifting to a 4R mindset has meant a change in some employees’ and growers’ ways of thinking — for instance, in moving from one or two nutrient applications per year to spreading them out through the growing season, says Wilson. “Luckily, added yield and profitability has followed many of these practices,” he adds.

Willard Agri-Services has invested resources to create the HighQ decision support system which helps a grower evaluate the productivity of the fields, then staff “discuss rate, source, placement and timing of his plant food,” says Twining.

“Growers intuitively understand the 4Rs,” he adds. “It gets to the heart of helping them manage their economic and ecologic decisions, which we believe go hand in hand. We now articulate this as a focus both on a grower’s yield and his footprint.”

Cooperative Producers Inc. (CPI) has brought in the technologies to offer grid soil sampling, variable rate application, split application of fertilizers, nitrogen stabilizers, soil moisture profile monitoring and other fertilizer efficiency enhancement practices. In 2011, the company rolled out a new precision agriculture program called CPI300 to help drive the decisions necessary to fully tap both seed and soil potential. CPI Agronomist Harlan Schafer says the additional financial investment was reasonable and added marketable value to CPI’s services.

To promote 4R practices, Crop Pro­duction Services (CPS), Delphi, IN, has gone as far as to help customers update their planters with the technology it takes to deliver in-furrow pop-up fertilizers, extremely efficient products applied at just two gallons per acre. And in a cost-share program with growers, CPS will help install and implement complete fertilizer delivery systems on customer’s planters in conjunction with Sure-Fire Ag Systems, Atwood, KS.

CPS’ recent work with manure fertilizer shows how a company can tailor its 4R recommendations to local conditions and resources, says Nick Sommers, crop consultant. His location is in the heart of swine processing country. When growers use manure available there, CPS makes sure they receive adequate credit for this nutrient source, plus the firm offers a fertilizer catalyst called Accomplish LM that increases manure nitrogen, phosphate and potassium efficiency.

Great Timing

Ever more finely tuned fertilizer programs couldn’t come at a better — or more important — time. For one, crop prices continue to be strong, and growers are seeking advice on how to get maximum yields from wise fertilizer use. Secondly, input prices continue to be volatile, often trending high, and customers want maximum return on their fertilizer investments.

Third, communities are scrutinizing agriculture’s environmental impact more closely than ever and promoting the immensely positive 4R message here is critical.

CPI’s Schafer first heard about the 4R initiative at the same time he was working with local Natural Resource Districts (NRDs) and community wellhead protection areas as they considered new regulations on fertilizer application in Nebraska. “4R Nutrient Stewardship was the right message at the right time to help describe our company’s commitment to stewardship,” he says. It resonated with all stakeholders. “The 4R goals do not place environmental stewardship and farm profitability in opposite camps, it is truly a win-win.”

Doug Busdeker, senior manager of Northern Farm Centers with The Andersons Inc., Maumee, OH, describes another situation. Water quality in Lake Erie has gotten a lot of attention as a result of an algal bloom in 2011, and research shows an excess of phosphorus in the lake due to many factors — agriculture, sewage treatment and industrial waste, among others. “If past agricultural practices are contributing to the problem it seems prudent that we should help find the solutions,” says Busdeker. “The Andersons has a strategy to grow our precision program utilizing GIS-based variable-rate technology ensuring nutrients are 4R-consistent.” The move requires an investment in technology, people and field equipment.

The company is also working with partners in industry, government and environmental groups to find solutions to the lake problem and has provided financial and staffing resources to support research, to work with and educate its customers on best products and practices and to actively participate in the formulation of new policies.

Getting Growers On Board

Not all growers are familiar with — or may embrace — 4R systems. CPS’ Sommers recommends retailers take “baby steps” with some customers. “There are so many things we can do, we can overwhelm growers,” he notes. He suggests picking one practice and starting to implement it at a “base level.” The key is to remain professional and responsible, making sure an approach is good for both the farmer and the dealer.

Growers grasp 4R concepts very quickly, says Schafer, but when it involves practices and expenses new to them, as with any innovation, there is an adoption curve. “Our agronomy sales people and our company really emphasize placing the right product on the field, even if that means selling less or adapting our delivery methods,” says Schafer. “Once our customers recognize that commitment, I think they also recognize the difference between CPI and our competitors.”

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