On The Scene: 2018 4R Nutrient Stewardship Summit Recap

Just as one of the most-publicized Summits in world history was getting underway on the Malaysian Peninsula earlier this week, The Fertilizer Institute’s (TFI) 2018 4R Nutrient Stewardship Summit was kicking off in Des Moines, IA.


Noting the appropriateness of the meeting’s “Hartford of the West” setting (Des Moines is a big insurance town) when considering both the recent Des Moines Water Works lawsuit controversy, as well as the Hawkeye State’s long history as an agenda setter on all things conservation and nutrient management in large-scale production agriculture, TFI President Chris Jahn issued a somewhat provocative decree.

On The Scene: 2018 4R Nutrient Stewardship Summit Recap

Chris Jahn, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) President, addresses attendees as part of the Welcome and Keynote session at the 2018 4R Nutrient Stewardship Summit, June 11, 2018, in Des Moines, IA.

“At TFI our main goal is nothing less than getting all plant nutrients applied according to the 4R principles – Right Rate, Right Source, Right Timing, and the Right Placement,” Jahn asserted. “To do this it is going to take nothing short of a transformational change in how we grow our food.”

After participating in the two-day meeting, which included a snazzy opening night reception at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates museum across the river, I think it’s safe to say one of the many takeaways from the discussion is that Jahn is not being dramatic for the sake of being dramatic. The stakes really are that high. And while it’s undeniable that we’ve come a long way as an industry when it comes to nutrient stewardship and a focus on soil health and water quality, as many of the event’s speakers rightfully stressed, there’s still plenty of work left to do.

With all that said, here’s a few takeaways from the meeting:

  1. Massive Scale of Change Still Needed: Or more simply put, growers can’t think they will be able to just plant some cover crops, or maybe do a little variable-rate lime on the Back 40, and realistically claim they are moving the nutrient stewardship needle forward. A broad, wide-scale and mainstream implementation of multiple conservation practices is what it will take. A combination of the aforementioned, plus both in-field (nitrogen sensors, cover crops, etc) and edge-of-field (bioreactors, buffer strips) would be ideal. Iowa Secretary of Ag Michael Naig, appearing just after Jahn, for one is hoping to see growers in his state do more. “If we’re going to meet that end goal of eliminating 45% of nutrient run-off we’re certainly going to need to go beyond just doing the 4Rs,” he pleaded. “We need to scale up our efforts with more edge-of-field monitoring, and we also just need more innovation overall. It’s my opinion that our great Agribusinesses, CCAs, and ag retailers will all be crucial pieces in this effort going forward.
  2. Focus on Soil Health Message: Joel Brinkmeyer, Agribusiness Association of Iowa (AAI) CEO, was next on the docket, moderating the “Iowa Focus” panel. During the panel discussion Ben Gleason with Iowa Corn Growers Association shared the results of some recently commissioned research showing a more positive response from growers to the costs associated with the adoption of new conservation practices when it is framed in improved soil health terms, versus highlighting the (still important!) benefits to water quality. Ag retailers that are looking at adding a line of cover crop seed to offer interested growers, or even something like Y-Drops or late-season application of N with high clearance applicators, will likely find more success in driving grower adoption when they hammer that soil health message home.
  3. Cover crops, Cover crops, Cover crops! I’d unofficially guesstimate the amount of cover crop content versus other content at the Summit at about a 70/30 split. Sarah Carlson, Strategic Initiatives Director, Practical Farmers of Iowa, for one had a fascinating session on cover crop research the outfit has spearheaded in Iowa over the last few decades. According to Carlson, the use of cover crops is agronomically necessary due to the mis-synchronization inherently present in our single growing season production system. “Cover crops cover up that fall and spring window (when there’s nothing growing) and reduce that loss potential, and hold nitrogen and other nutrients,” she said. “In Iowa, we don’t need more nitrogen applied; we need to get better at synchronizing nitrogen application with crop demand.” Carlson’s group has done some interesting research on cereal rye cover crop mixes in a continuous corn production system. Now, as many a continuous corn Iowa grower has probably found out the hard way, planting corn into cereal rye typically results in the dreaded “yield drag.” Hoping to find a way to alleviate that yield drag, since the cereal rye is actually a yield booster + nitrogen immobilizer when deployed strategically, Carlson and Co. found out via their research that, relatively speaking, the earlier one terminated the cereal rye before planting, the less likely that grower is hit with the yield drag.

Iowa Nutrient Stewardship Fast Facts:

  • Iowa ag retailers average 2 Certified Crop Advisors (CCA)/agronomists per retail facility.
  • 88% of Iowa farm fields drain into a monitored waterway.
  • In 2017 8,000+ Iowa farmers planted 760,000 acres of cover crops. While that number only represents 3% of the 24 million acres of crop production in Iowa, it is a 22% increase over the 2016 growing season.
  • The state of Iowa has over $18.2 million in USDA partner funding available for cost-share grants to fund conservation practice adoption at the farmgate.

Other Random Quotes That Stick Out in My Notebook:

“These nitrogen sensors, I like to call them a ‘Laboratory in a Box.’ Obviously, this sort of technology is very interesting to farmers, and is potentially more useful than climate modeling solutions. Certainly the interest is there (from the farmer).”
-Ben Gleason, Iowa Corn Growers Association

“More than ever I’ve begun to realize that three different agronomists can look at the same imagery and all come up with three different answers for what’s going on in that field…it’s often up to the interpretation of the owner. And scouting is still where it’s at (with imagery). Remote sensing does not take away the agronomist, it does not take away the boots on the ground and the need to walk those fields.”
-Dr. Brian Arnall, Oklahoma State University

“The development of a retail cover crops business is all about building those long-term, lasting relationships with growers. When we first looked at cover crops at Ceres we realized it actually was a good complement to our existing services. It’s at a time when things are slow for corn and bean growers, we already had a lot of the equipment, and it certainly didn’t hurt that management approved of it and many of those same executives already used cover crops on their own farms. It was about delivering something our customers we’re demanding.”
-Betsy Bowers, Ceres Solutions

“Why do customers adopt conservation practices? Early on for us it was all economics, economics, economics, but over the last few years we’ve really witnessed a shift, and improving soil health has definitely come into play in Indiana.”

Random Local Beer and Food Tip That You Probably Couldn’t Care Less About, But I’ll Include it Anyways:

  • On The Scene: 2018 4R Nutrient Stewardship Summit RecapDid Des Moines suffer some apocalyptic Zombie invasion in the recent past, and I somehow missed it? Was Resident Evil, or perhaps The Walking Dead, set in Iowa (I just might be the only person under the age of 40 who’s never seen an episode of The Walking Dead)? What’s with all the Zombie stuff, Iowans? I couldn’t tell you either way, but it has to be more than mere coincidence that both of the most memorable food and drink experiences I had in Des Moines this week involved Zombies. Beer-wise, Iowa Brewing Company’s (IBC) relatively new Surf Zombies IPA is easily one of the best new IPAs this hop-obsessed weirdo has sampled in recent memory. Descriptive text from the label: “Named for Iowa’s epic surf rockers, our gnarly brain-devouring West Coast-inspired IPA features Simcoe, Columbus, Centennial, and Cascade hops. Zoinks! Who needs brains when you’ve got beer?” Indeed, IBC, why would anyone with regular access to this amazingly smooth IPA need to sample the forbidden human flesh? The things I think about when I’m thinking about stuff, you guys…
  • Food-wise, a couple blocks east of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates sits Zombie Burger + Drink, an All-Things-Undead themed burger chain and bar that from the outside appears to be one of those fly-by-night Halloween costume stores that sets up shop for a month or two in an abandoned strip mall in a town near you. Being that I stopped in on lunch and still had a few hours of meetings to get through, I decided to skip the fries and go solo with the Trailer Trash Zombie burger, which featured two perfectly seared quarter pound local Iowa beef patties topped with American cheese, fried pickle, chicken fried bacon, cheese curds, and ranch dressing. Terrifyingly delicious, if I must say!

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