Christian County Farmers Supply
Most often, generalizations don’t work. That’s especially true in agriculture where blanket approaches—like big data and big regulation—don’t take into account the endless variations from field to field, farmer to farmer, year to year and input to input.
To avoid having government regulators make sweeping generalizations that tell farmers what they can or cannot put on their fields—which would in theory minimize nutrient runoff—farmers in Illinois have adopted the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy.
In central Illinois, Christian County Farmers Supply (FS) is helping its customers reduce nutrient loss through that strategy’s “4R” initiative: right source, right rate, right time and right place.
Christian County FS started in 1926 as a fuel cooperative. Ninety years later, fuel is still one of its main products, but Christian County FS is now a full service agriculture supply cooperative that sells fertilizer, fuel, seed and crop protection products, all of which are accompanied by expert agronomy advice. A co-op within a co-op, Christian County FS is a part of the GROWMARK System, an agricultural cooperative serving more than 250,000 customers across the Midwest and northeastern U.S. and in Ontario, Canada.
When it comes to the 4R nutrient loss prevention strategy, Christian County FS is especially focused on the time element. To avoid nutrient loss, the co-op encourages its customers to “spoon feed” their crops. Rather than apply a large amount of nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorous, once during the year, the co-op advocates a multi-application approach, which uses just enough nutrients to meet crop needs, not less and especially not more.
The goals are clear: optimize nutrient uptake, minimize environmental impact, avoid government regulation.
“As an industry and as a group, our farmers and ag retailers are adopting these best management practices to effectively prevent the loss of phosphorous and nitrogen to our water without having government regulation tell us to do that, so it’s a voluntary approach,” says Mark Bauman, Christian County FS general manager.
Timing is everything
Corn takes up most of its nitrogen in the summer, but past practices have been to apply nitrogen fertilizer in the fall, before planting the crop. The idea is nutrients will have time to incorporate with the soil and be ready when the crops need them.
In certain conditions, like heavy rainfall, nutrients can leach out of the soil and into streams. Eventually, nitrogen and phosphorous wash down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. There they’ve created a “dead zone,” where algae blooms make it impossible for marine life to survive. That dead zone spans several thousand square miles.
Under its multi-application approach, Christian County FS works closely with farmers to determine when to apply nutrients and to find the balance between using enough and not using too much. The co-op does this with a combination of advanced technology and agronomy advice.
As customers harvest their crops, technology on their combine harvesters monitor what nutrients are being removed from the soil and sends that data back to Christian County FS. The co-op analyzes the data, generates maps of nutrient loss and tells the equipment that spreads fertilizer where to replenish nutrients.
“We can actually be in a field and ready to put back what was taken off by that crop in really a matter of minutes after the crop is harvested, so there’s a very quick turnaround time utilizing wireless technology and data transfer that probably hasn’t been there in the past,” Bauman says.
Christian County FS also uses modeling programs that estimate nitrogen levels based on rainfall and temperature. It pairs weather-based predictions with field samples that give precise nitrate levels. Due to advanced technology, that field testing can be done on the spot, right in farmers’ fields. It allows Christian County FS to “ground truth” what’s actually there.
“Of course our industry has really had the benefit of a lot of new technology in the past several years, and it’s a lot different than what everybody thinks about if they’re thinking about their grandpa’s farm,” Bauman says.
Making a case for multiple applications
Applying nitrogen multiple times throughout the year isn’t necessarily less expensive, but it can increase crop yields by up to 50 bushels an acre. In Bauman’s eyes, regardless of yield, the cost is minimal in comparison to the burden of regulation.
“In my own opinion, our customers ultimately are the best stewards of their land and understanding what it takes to economically run their farms,” he says. “Blanket regulation from the government for their farms wouldn’t be right. With government regulation, we would be trying to implement practices that didn’t take into account the diversity of our customers’ operations.”
To prove that this spoon feeding approach can improve crop yields, Christian County FS has eight test sites of varying sizes across the county. It uses those fields to compare common practice yields and 4R best practice yields. The 4R method comes out on top, especially in wet years that tend to wash nutrients out of the soil.
“There’s definitely an investment in time for the customers to adopt that approach, but once again it pays in yield typically,” Bauman says.
For the past several years, nutrient prices have been high. Even though grain prices were higher than they are now, many farmers were less willing to invest in nutrients. As a result, soil test levels have declined over the past several years.
“We have customers, and especially our forward thinking customers, this year putting on more what you’d call ‘build up’ in areas of the field,” Bauman says. “We’re spreading this based on GPS so we know which areas are low from soil testing taken with GPS, and in the low areas we can put a little extra on to build back up to a soil test level to make sure crop yields are optimized.”
Like many agronomists, Bauman is a Certified Crop Advisor through American Society of Agronomy (ASA). He’s also has a 4R Nutrient Management Specialist Certification from ASA. He encourages other farmers and agronomists to pursue that certification as well.
“We’re an advocate of this approach, but ultimately the decision is in the growers’ hands,” Bauman says. “They’re the ones that stand to gain or lose the most, both from regulation and from nutrients available or lost.”