What does it take to be considered improved environmental steward at the farm gate? Is it a focus on water quality, an environmental footprint, production of sustainable food, soil health or planting cover crops? We all have a different point of view on this question.
What it isn’t exactly: It is not just about improving water quality through nutrient reduction (i.e., reducing nutrient loss in Illinois). It is not just about a farmer’s environmental footprint and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is not just about soil health and soil biology or the widespread use of cover crops. It is about enabling farmers to capitalize on increased harvest yield and improved farm income while improving environmental stewardship.
What is should be: It is about providing a sustainable incentive for farmers to continue improvement of their environmental stewardship beyond the payments of any short-term programs. It is about keeping a focus on farm income and profitability. It is helping farmers to discover ways to change nutrient use practices to Minimize environmental impact, Optimize harvest yield and Maximize input utilization. It is a focus on M.O.M. that will make the difference.
Curtailing nutrient loss: Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies for each of the states in the Upper Mississippi River Basin are well-intended. Each state’s “document” provides a summary of what tools are available to help with nutrient load reductions and the anticipated cost or benefit to the farmer of adopting each practice based upon peer-reviewed research.
However, alone, these strategies do not resolve the issue of nutrient loading from production agriculture in the Midwest. They simply provide a collection of possible tools growers can use that may minimize off-site nutrient movement. What will make these strategies come to life and make a difference is the creation and adoption of Nutrient Utilization Strategies by individual farmers. These strategies include tools recommended by the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies as well as many other tools that are highly effective in improving nutrient utilization, but were not discovered by academic research efforts to make them a part of a strategy.
Takes a team: Ag retailers, consultants, and other ag professionals play an important role in improved nutrient stewardship. They will be essential for the development, implementation and improvement of current nutrient use practices when evaluating all of the management tools available, including those found in each state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (Illinois: Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy). It will be vital for today’s ag professionals to describe what tools are available and how they can (or cannot) be incorporated into an individual Nutrient Utilization Plan to improve nutrient stewardship. This will take both communications and education to build awareness and skill sets among the professionals who regularly advise growers.
Sustainable improvement in water quality due to changes in production agriculture cannot be solely based upon a reduction in nutrient use, using a cover crop, reducing a farmer’s environmental footprint or using “sustainable farming practices.” Sustainable nutrient use improvements must be based upon “all of the above” with farm profitability as the primary ingredient.
Dr. Howard Brown is a manager of agronomy services with GROWMARK, Inc.