BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Water quality is among the Illinois Soybean Association’s top priorities, and its members are teamed with other commodity groups to promote a proactive new nutrient-reduction strategy.

Representatives from the ISA, the Illinois Corn Growers Association, Illinois Pork Producers, the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, Syngenta, Monsanto, Illinois Farm Bureau and Growmark serve on the Illinois Council on Best Management Practices and are working with the state Environmental Protection Agency to promote this initiative.

“The strategy seeks to formalize the voluntary work currently under way in the state by creating a cohesive plan to improve environmental stewardship, especially water quality; develop guidelines based on existing programs; and seeks to increase collaboration, research and innovation,” ISA Director Jeff Lynn of Oakford said at organization’s recent media day.

The EPA tentatively plans to have a nutrient-reduction strategic plan available for public comment this month.

Following the public comment period, the document will be submitted to the U.S. EPA.

Illinois is taking a proactive rather than reactive approach to nutrient management as farm leaders monitor what has transpired in the Chesapeake Bay watershed the past several years.

Under the direction of the U.S. EPA, a watershed plan is being implemented in the Chesapeake that includes reducing nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment loads by 60 percent by 2017.

EPA will maintain close oversight over each of the bay watershed states and the district’s programs in all sectors to make sure they are implementing the pollution control plans, are on schedule for meeting water quality goals and are achieving established milestones.

As part of the mandate, farmers have had to change their farming management, including restrictions on nitrogen and phosphorous practices.

“We think it’s important that we understand what has happened to their farming practices and how they have had to react to the mandates from the EPA order,” said Don Guinnip of Marshall, ISA district director and chair of ISA’s production committee.

Parallel Practices

As in the Midwest, farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed raised corn, soybeans, wheat and forage crops, as well as poultry, dairy and hogs.

“It’s very similar to Illinois. What has happened there is going to happen in some form or another in Illinois,” Guinnip said.

“We think it’s important that Illinois farmers get a report from the Chesapeake Bay farmers on the possible solutions to the program because they’ve already had to make mandated changes to their farming practices, fertilizer management, insecticide, herbicide, cover crop, all kinds of changes were made on the farms.

“We are eventually probably going to have those same or similar goals.”

Changes in nutrient management strategies also will require infrastructure changes.

“We have a very large fertilizer industry and a very large livestock industry, and both of those industries are going to have to begin to address these problems with equipment and management and procedures,” Guinnip said.

Changes will include moving away from applying all of the nitrogen pre-plant and to split applications.

“We’ve kind of moved to stabilizers with products such as N-Serve, and now we’re trying to experiment with split application where we put part of it on ahead and then come back in a timely manner and put the final amount on so we don’t have it all out there at one time and we’re saving in total pounds of nitrogen to get the same yield,” Guinnip said.

“We just want to be prepared for what’s coming down the road and we want farmers to understand that this is an issue that they’re going to have to deal with and if we get ahead of the game it’s easier for us to solve it than to be told how to solve it.”

Strict Guidelines

ISA leaders have been in contact with Chesapeake Bay-area farmers for some insight on the new restrictions.

“Some of the farmers in Maryland that we’ve talked to have pretty strict nutrient management plans on each farm,” Guinnip said.

“Of course, the situation is a little bit different. They have a lot of poultry litter that they’ve been using, and that’s a different ball game. They’re learning how to do that in an effective manner.”

Many of the farms have strict guidelines on the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous applied to a crop on a certain soil type and application timing.

“They ended up changing their farming practices and they ended up changing their yield goals,” Guinnip said.

“As we’ve said many times, to stay farming you’ve got to make a profit and changing and adopting the new techniques has been a challenge in some ways to maintain that profit because if you’re used to doing it one way and that’s proved to be the most profitable and the best for the crop in the long run, well, now we’ve go to focus on another item to stay within the profitability realm because we’ve got to keep the nitrogen and the phosphorous in the soil where it can be used by the plant.”

From an economic standpoint, farmers don’t want to throw expensive nutrients down the drain or apply more than needed for optimum yields.

“Economics has controlled a lot of this but because of the continued high test results in the Chesapeake Bay they’ve come along with these mandatory levels for certain crops and timeliness and ways of applying them and are being forced to change some of their methods of farming,” Guinnip said.

One of the farmers in the bay area said filter strips are required in fields that have over a 3 percent to 4 percent grade toward a drainage tributary to absorb runoff.

“So we’re going to become familiar with maybe things that we’re already familiar with, but we have not been mandated to use,” Guinnip said. “Split application of nitrogen is a tool to control runoff. Tissue testing is another.”

He began testing wheat, corn and milo plant tissue on his farm this year to determine phosphorous and nitrogen levels in growth stages.

“There’s tissue testing, soil testing and the final yield and then you can analyze the crop stubble after harvest of how much residue of nitrogen and phosphorous is there in those cornstalks and how much of it was taken up by the plant and how much is still in the soil.

“It’s a learning process all along. Every farmer has a unique set of circumstances on their farm, and the solutions to this water quality program will be a little different on each farm, each different soil type and in each region of Illinois.”

Different Answers

Some of the solutions to the water quality issue are as simple as turning to a corn-soybean rotation. However, traditional geographic practices come into play.

“If we just go from continuous corn to the corn and soybean rotation, we’re limiting the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that we’re putting out there,” Guinnip said.

“But if you go from north to south toward southern Illinois, we don’t do continuous corn. We have the rotation. But as you go to the northern counties where they’ve traditionally done continuous corn, are comfortable with it, they’ve figured it out and they can make money to do that, the burden is on us to convince them to stick soybeans in there at least every second or third year because it can be profitable and we’re limiting the amount of nitrogen.

“Illinois is a big diverse state, so our solutions are going to be different. In the 40, 50 or 60 percent of Illinois that’s tiled, they have a whole different situation. They have a direct route. It goes down in the soil and into the tile.

“So we have to have different answers to all of these questions because what works in DeKalb County and what works in Champaign County and what works in Jasper County are different.”