You have probably heard of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy by now, but in case you have not, it addresses nutrient losses to waters in Illinois and downstream to the Gulf of Mexico from both point and non-point sources of pollution. In Illinois, we have goals to reduce nitrate-nitrogen losses by 15% and total phosphorus losses by 25% by the year 2025. The end target is a 45% reduction in both nutrients’ losses to the Mississippi River. Any implementation of conservation practices on agricultural land to reduce nutrient losses in Illinois is voluntary.
In the midst of seemingly never-ending rainfall, delayed planting, and trade tariffs this spring, thinking about implementing conservation practices in the near future might not be high on your priority list. While this frame of mind is understandable, there are ways to save money and simultaneously protect one of your biggest investments, your land, with conservation. As steps are taken to prevent soil erosion, build soil health, and retain nutrients in the field, water that moves across and through the soil and eventually flows in our streams and rivers improves in quality.
Here are three ways you could potentially cut your costs and help meet the goals outlined in the Illinois NLRS:
1. Use MRTN. Utilizing the Maximum Return to Nitrogen Calculator (found here: http://cnrc.agron.iastate.edu/) can help producers apply N at the most profitable rate by region. There is a point where more N does not equal more yield, so over-application is only costing you money. The NLRS assumes that 10% of producers are currently applying N at rates greater than the MRTN. If those applications were lowered to MRTN, we could potentially see nitrate-N losses reduced by approximately 10% on those acres. Suppose that means the N applications were reduced by 20 lb/acre; that could save the producer about $8/acre.
2. Reduce tillage. In a recent Farmdoc Daily article, “Tillage Passes and Returns on Corn-Soybean Farms in East-Central Illinois,” researchers found that farmers enrolled in the Precision Conservation Management program (https://www.precisionconservation.org/) saw no significant increase in yield from conducting more than one tillage pass in either corn or soybean. It is possible that you are losing money by completing more than one tillage pass, though there are always exceptions. It is important to evaluate the situation on your own operation, but keep in mind that the NLRS estimated that reducing tillage by just one pass could save a producer $17/acre.Researchers created several scenarios as part of the NLRS. In one scenario, they predicted that if 1.8 million acres that experience high erosion and are currently conventionally tilled were converted to a reduced or no-till system, we could see reductions in soil erosion of 50% on those acres and prevent about 1.8-2.8 million pounds of total phosphorus/year from entering water bodies in Illinois.
3. Test your soil. How often is your field soil sampled? If you are waiting five or more years between soil fertility tests, you are likely missing out on important information that could improve your yields, save you money, and protect water quality. If soil sampling every year is not an option for you, I would consider sampling every two years to help guide your fertilizer applications. Thinking about phosphorus, the Illinois Agronomy Handbook indicates that on average for the state, soil test phosphorus levels built up to 45 lb/acre are ideal for producing maximum corn and soybean yields. On average, phosphorus levels above 65 lb/acre provide no yield increase (check the Illinois Agronomy Handbook for regionally specific values). If your soil fertility tests indicate you are above the recommended maintenance level, consider eliminating a phosphorus fertilizer application that year. It could save you $8/acre, according to the NLRS.
If you are interested in implementing these or other conservation practices in your operation, feel free to contact me at 217-347-7773 or email@example.com.
Jennifer Woodyard is a University of Illinois Extension watershed outreach associate.