Farm Economics, Soil Health Among Key Issues For Crop Nutrition Industry In 2015

Farm Economics, Soil Health Among Key Issues For Crop Nutrition Industry In 2015

Young Soybean FieldThere are myriad issues needing attention from the crop nutrition industry and the supporting scientific community in 2015 and beyond. Agronomic fundamentals connect those issues. Understanding that connectedness is helpful in managing any one of them. The following set of connected issues illustrates the point.


Economics on the farm and in supplying the farm. Market conditions have amplified the importance of being both efficient and effective in crop nutrient management. When decisions are being made about how to allocate scarce dollars among fields or nutrients, maximizing return on the last dollar spent on fertilizer inputs while striving for maximum economic yields for the overall cropping system is a must for today’s successful operations. Balancing short-term cuts to create more positive cash flow against long-term consequences of those cuts can be a challenge. Across-the-board cuts are seldom the best solution as any input adjustments should be guided by expected response based on site-specific nutrient needs as predicted by soil tests and relevant research. The obvious role of input and service providers is to contribute knowledge and technology to help operations meet their goals while remaining profitable themselves.

State Nutrient Loss Reduction Plans. Many of our important ag states now have nutrient loss reduction plans in place, or are about to have them. We must continue to emphasize that these are nutrient loss reduction programs, not nutrient reduction programs. Keeping loss in the phrase is essential once the connection with economics is noted, together with the current trends in nutrient use vs. nutrient removal in many cropping systems.

A critical role of the fertilizer industry, CCAs, extension workers and other agronomic advisers is to support growers in their efforts to replace needed nutrients removed from ag soils by crop harvest but with the least possible loss of nutrients to water or air. As crop yields climb, this task becomes increasingly more important, more challenging and more dependent on a diverse set of skills and abilities that can only be supplied by a team.

Soil Health. The United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Soils. Throughout the year, the peoples of the world will be reminded of their dependence on this thin vulnerable layer from which we obtain our food, fiber and a significant amount of our energy. This emphasis on soil health provides the fertilizer industry an opportunity to re-emphasize its role in helping maintain soil fertility as the crops we grow remove essential nutrients from soils as mentioned above. Soils cannot function to support the world’s nutritional needs without being fertile — a simple, but sometimes overlooked, fact. In 2015, we will again work with the soil analysis laboratories of North America to inventory aggregated soil test levels and evaluate recent trends.

Nutrient Stewardship Metrics. Being of Norwegian heritage, one of the meals we inherited from previous generations includes a specially processed cod called lutefisk. So what does this have to do with nutrient stewardship metrics? We learned from our local grocer that he fears his store will be unable to sell lutefisk because the retail chain he is a part of is committed to handling sustainably-harvested fish and it has been unable to locate a lutefisk supplier that can provide such documentation.

Just as supply chain sustainability issues reach from our local food retailers to the fisheries of northern Europe, they are also reaching into the crop farms of North America. Maintaining credible nutrient stewardship datasets for fields and farms is an essential step in preparing farms for a future where agriculture’s clients value credible information on sustainability.

Bottom line — assisting farmer-clients with simple metrics on nutrient stewardship is an important service, not only to prepare for supply chain demands, but for the more traditional reasons associated with nutrient use efficiency and effectiveness as discussed above. Examples of such metrics include crop yield produced per unit of nutrient applied (partial factor productivity); quantity of nutrient removed in harvested product divided by quantity of nutrient applied (partial nutrient balance); current soil test levels compared to target soil test level ranges and trends over time (one of many indicators of soil health); indicators of the adequacy of nutrient supply to crops (example is plant analysis); and implementation of 4R practices.

Additionally, organizations such as Field to Market have developed and continue to improve tools for assessing the “footprint” of individual farms. Assisting farmers in using and interpreting these tools is likely a good investment.

The Maturing of 4R Nutrient Stewardship. The foundation for the industry response to all four of these connected “issues” is 4R Nutrient Stewardship. However, the right in the 4Rs must be what is right to simultaneously address all the objectives associated with the issues mentioned — no small task. The maturing of the 4Rs takes us past communicating the concept to where we can demonstrate efficacy of the practices involved and the system they help build. We must show improvement and the potential for improvement to continue. The North American fertilizer industry, through its 4R Research Fund, has invested in projects across the U.S. and Canada that are designed to generate that efficacy data and also help identify gaps in our current understanding of what right really means under the diverse conditions our growers face in managing crop nutrients.