May 21, 2024

Collective nutrient loss efforts falling short, tools available

Jim Isermann

URBANA, Ill. — The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy’s biennial report featured what’s been done and what needs to be done in the non-point source sector.

Details of the report’s non-point agriculture sector were reviewed during a recent NLRS podcast with Brian Rennecker and Jim Isermann.

Rennecker is a third-generation farmer and Illinois Department of Agriculture Land and Water Resources Bureau chief, and Isermann, Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership soil health specialist, raises corn and soybeans and has a cow-calf operation on his family’s farm near Streator.

The podcast is co-produced by agriculture educator Rachel Curry, watershed outreach associate Nicole Haverback, and media communication specialist Todd Gleason with the Illinois Extension Nutrient Loss Reduction team.

The state’s NLRS long-term goal is a 45% reduction in both nitrogen and total phosphorus loads, and the short-term goal is to reduce the phosphorus load by 25% and the nitrate-nitrogen load by 15% by 2025.

The 2017-2021 five-year average nitrate-nitrogen loads increased 4.8% to 416 million pounds annually, and total phosphorus loads increased 35% to 46 million pounds, compared to the 1980-1996 baseline. River flow, or water yield, was 23% higher than the baseline, according to the biennial report.

What are some of the projects being implemented by IDOA and how have they reduced nutrient loss from the ag sector?

Rennecker: We have a long-running program — the Partners for Conservation. It is a cost-share program available through all 97 Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and those are for farm bill conservation projects that do not qualify for direct farm bill funds.

They still have to follow the farm bill engineering aspect of it for projects like waterways and field buffer strips, for example.

If you just purchased the land and you’ve got some immediate erosion issues and you want to put in a waterway, that doesn’t qualify through the farm bill because you need to own the land for a calendar year.

We get funds every year from the Illinois General Assembly that are facilitated through IDOA for those Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

The other one, now it its fifth year, is the Fall Covers for Spring Savings program. The program started with 50,000 acres five years ago and now we’re up to 140,000 acres.

That’s been highly successful and with cover crops that is the cheapest and fastest way to keep your soil anchored.

What are some of the key points related to the ag sector from the 2023 biennial report?

Rennecker: There are some good points that are coming out of this. One thing it addresses is the education aspect and outreach of what the NLRS is and its goals.

Illinois’ commitment is evident by the 186 full-time members invested in government and non-government roles. Those 186 members specifically were engaged in the activities related to implementing the strategy.

They spent nearly $51 million just in education and outreach for the NLRS and the goals associated with it. Illinois is highly invested in the NLRS and its goals.

“We can address the needs of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy while maintaining good profitability.”

—  Jim Isermann, Land and Water Resources Bureau chief, Illinois Department of Agriculture

Another good thing coming out of it is National Agricultural Statistics Service survey in 2022 based on the 2021 growing season. It gave some pretty good insights into the farmer awareness and the strategy implementation levels.

The survey reported that 76% of farmers used the Maximum Return to Nitrogen approach, while 85% utilized an N-inhibitor for fall and winter applied anhydrous ammonia.

I think that is a really, really good mark, having that inhibitor, making sure when you apply in the fall that it’s going to keep that anhydrous in place and not leaching out into the soil and eventually into the water.

What are some of the barriers farmers and landowners are facing as they try to adopt more conservation practices?

Rennecker: There’s a multitude of state and private programs. I think it’s just trying to figure out what best program works for what your goal is. We’re trying to address that, keep putting things into one clearinghouse, so to speak.

I’ll use cover crop programs, for example. Currently there’s about 14 different private and government programs that all just deal with specific funding for cover crops. So, now there is a clearinghouse website that tells you what programs work with others and what don’t work with others.

That’s just one barrier of addressing it, “I’ve got this, but I don’t know what works with what program and what doesn’t work with the other program.”

The other part of that is time and labor. I’m going to talk cover crops again. As we all know, during the fall, our priority is getting the crops out of the field.

That’s 100% workforce dedication, machinery dedication and, just having a lack of workforce holistically within ag, it’s hard to find extra people to literally chase the combine and to plant cover crops in a timely fashion.

This year we had one of the best cover crop seasons in the fall because we had a relatively dry fall to finish harvest. That allowed some farmers that didn’t have the workforce and time to have the time later in the year and not be cancelled by the onset of the rain where it pretty much washes everything out for the remainder year.

Any advice you have for farmers regarding conservation practices and adopting them?

Rennecker: Identify what you want to do, prioritize and start small. For cover crops, I think the best advice I ever heard out of the multitude of conferences and speakers was, find something that you like, try it on 10, 25 acres.

Don’t start big because you will encounter problems and it’s always easier to deal with a small problem than a large problem. Because if you deal with a large problem then more than likely you won’t try that conservation practice again the following year because it was such a large headache.


They have a couple sets of goals and it will take most of the producers in the state to do something to reach those goals. What actions do you think are necessary for farmers and landowners to take to reach the water quality goals Illinois has?

Isermann: It’s going to take a number of things to address it. The first and simplest one is nitrogen management. This should be an easy one to implement simply because it provides an economic savings for farmers.

It is the one that we’ve seen the most movement on because we’re oftentimes talking about ultimately reducing the overall rate of nitrogen that is applied, by applying it at the right time or just not committing an over-application.

We’ve seen significant improvement in this using programs such as the Maximum Return to Nitrogen or even just some of the commercial monitoring programs that are out there that are looking at the yearly climate and soil organic matter to help reduce nitrogen rates.

But in the end this isn’t just an issue of over-application. In fact, quite a bit of the problem isn’t the fact that we’re putting too much nitrogen out there — it’s simply that it’s very mobile, it’s always changing forms and it can even just come out of the organic matter of our soil even if we’re not applying nitrogen.

Even with all that, we’re going to need to see some other practices such as cover crops and no-till in particular on tiled ground in order to capture these nitrates from leaving our fields.

We can look at edge-of-field practices. There’s some really cool things such as wetlands and bioreactors that will play an important role and farmers should always look at those to help the system.

But in the end, we’re going to have to see more implementation of cover crops, often coupled with reduced tillage practices. Maybe not on every acre. Maybe that’s not the mentality that we have to have, but we’re going to have to have these adopted on significant acres in order to address the issue of nitrates leaving our field.

Cover crop is easy for people to understand, meaning the crop is green and it holds the nitrogen in place. How does no-till help?

Isermann: No-till as far as nutrient loss will have a couple facets. I’ve been concentrating on the nitrate side of things because that’s something I understand a little bit better. The phosphorus side is the other component of that.

We do see big improvements with reducing phosphorus loss because of no-till practices reduce overall soil erosion and that is still one of the primary ways that phosphorus gets into our lakes and streams by being attached to the soil.

There is research going on that shows there may be other ways that it’s happening, as well, and there’s a lot of interesting research going on in terms of phosphorus that’s in our streams. But no-till plays a big role in that.

I also see no-till or also reduced tillage systems, because it doesn’t always need to be no-till. We’re seeing guys who are very successful with strip-till systems, but reducing the tillage in some way couples very well with cover crop management.

For those who want to adopt new conservation practices on their properties, whether they’re landowners or farmers, how can they be supported by the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy?

Isermann: There’s a lot of information in the NLRS itself about how to address this, walking through those different steps in terms of utilizing cover crops or utilizing nitrogen management.

But the important aspect that I see is once you decide what route you want to go, if it’s cover crops for example, make sure that you’re getting appropriate advice from appropriate resources. There’s a ton of information out there in terms of cover crop management. There’s lots of people starting to take on a lot of these practices.

One of the downfalls that I probably see most of the time with a farmer adopting these practices is trying to take some information from someone who wasn’t in the same system and trying to apply it to their system.

An example is if you’re in a commodity corn and soybean system in central Illinois on flat black, high quality soils, you need to find guys who are in similar situations. You need to find researchers who are doing work in similar economic areas to apply to what you’re doing.

So, maybe someone who has an organic system or has livestock involved, those systems and how they’re managing them won’t necessarily fit your program very well.

Soil health has a lot of principles that are absolutely true. We see them talked about all the time. We see keeping the cover on the soil, improving diversity, reducing tillage, all those things are very important, but how it actually gets applied to your system is what’s going to matter.

What you were doing may be a little bit different than what somebody else is doing who might be out there on the internet or giving some sort of advice.

Always make sure that you’re paying attention to the context of that advice or that resource that you’re looking to rely on. Make sure that information is going to apply to your program, as well.

Because at the end of the day in corn and soybean commodity systems, if you’re wanting to adopt these practices, yield is not everything, but yield is pretty important and we have to be cautious that we’re not taking on practices that are negatively impacting our yield and therefore our economics while we’re trying to address these problems.

There are ways to do that. We can do both. We can address the needs of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy while maintaining good profitability.

Tom Doran

Tom C. Doran

Field Editor