Jean Payne was worried.
“The last thing you want to think about are high nitrates in the city’s water supply when the (Illinois) legislature is in session,” says Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association (IFCA), which represents fertilizer companies and dealers. Yet, that’s what the IFCA and farmers faced during the spring of 2013 during the Illinois General Assembly session in Springfield, Illinois.
Spring rainfall was flushing unused nitrate-nitrogen (N) spurred by drought-squelched 2012 corn yields through tile lines into Lake Springfield, Springfield’s drinking water source. Nitrate levels above 10 parts per million (ppm), the safe drinking water level threshold established by the EPA, would trigger the city to give free bottled water to infants and pregnant women at an estimated $1.5 million daily cost. Since around 95% of the watershed’s nitrates could be linked to farming, agriculture would be blamed.
Fortunately, nitrate levels didn’t reach the 10-ppm level. Still, it reinforced the need to resolve future problems, says Payne.
“We did not want to be the Des Moines Waterworks (DMWW) of Illinois,” says Payne. The DMWW sued drainage districts in three Iowa counties in 2015, blaming them for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, a drinking water source for 500,000 central Iowa residents. The Iowa State Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit in 2017.
That year also revealed a change in Illinois’ nutrient application strategy. A 10-inch rain that fell in the watershed following 2017 spring fertilizer applications again threatened to raise Lake Springfield nitrate levels. Fortunately, formation of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (INLRS) in 2015 had forged relationships and understanding between the IFCA, farmers, farm groups, conservation organizations, and environmental entities.
“We asked all the (fertilizer) retailers not to start side-dressing until the lake recovered,” says Payne. “They did, and this area continues to be one of the highest corn-producing areas in Illinois.”
More good news followed in 2018: Nitrate levels did not rise above 1 ppm all year.
It hasn’t been all puppies and rainbows, though. Data from the 2019 INLRS biennial report showed losses of two key nutrients, nitrate-N and total phosphorus (P), actually rose. From 2013 to 2017, nitrate-N loads and total P loads increased 7% and 26%, respectively, over a 1980 to 1996 baseline.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Eliot Clay, agriculture and water programs director for Illinois Environmental Council.
No. 1 in Good and Bad
Each year, Illinois farmers grow 9 to 10 million acres of both corn and soybeans that normally rank at or near the top in U.S. production of both crops. Consequently, Illinois is also a heavily fertilized and largely tile-drained state. These factors create a microcosm that also occurs in other agricultural states that constantly balance agricultural needs with environmental ones.
The Illinois story started in 2010, when the IFCA knew that nutrient and water-quality issues would greatly impact Illinois agriculture.
“We could not escape the fact that although we were No. 1 in a lot of things, we were also No. 1 in losses of nitrogen and phosphorus going on to the Gulf of Mexico,” says Payne. “It wasn’t the golf courses and it wasn’t the homeowners or all the other parties that we’ve (agriculture) traditionally liked to blame.”
That’s why Illinois followed a different path than other states for improving water quality.
“With our first meeting with the Illinois Farm Bureau, we decided that we would never accomplish anything unless we brought the environmental groups in,” says Payne.
This helped all groups understand each other’s viewpoints and move forward, say participants. “That has been really powerful, different than other states,” adds Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
Ultimately, the INLRS aimed to reduce downstream water loads of nitrate-N and total P loads in the state’s water bodies by 45% by 2035. It established an interim goal of slicing 15% in nitrate-N and 25% total P by 2025 by focusing on nutrient loss that includes sources like agriculture.
The groups who developed the INLRS also successfully lobbied the Illinois General Assembly to assess a fertilizer fee that varies between 50¢ and $3 per ton. Proceeds are distributed through the Nutrient Research & Education Council (NREC) to fund research to improve ways to apply crop nutrients.
“It took a lot of courage for the ag groups to swallow hard and say, ‘All right. Let’s give them (environmental groups) a seat at the table,’?” says Payne. “It also took a lot of courage for the environmental groups to join the NREC.”
Focusing on N
INLRS assessments found point sources like municipal wastewater treatment plants fueled most of the P flowing into Illinois water bodies. Data showed point sources moved far less nitrate-N into lakes, rivers, and streams.
It flipped for farmers, as nitrate-N losses from fertilizer and manure applications were much higher than for those from P. The highly productive prairie soils of central Illinois often lost up to 25 pounds per acre of nitrate-N through drain tile.
Tackling nitrate-N escapes wasn’t simply a matter of slicing N applications on every field, though.
“We fought hard to include the word loss in the title of the strategy,” says Payne. “Most of them (similar programs) are called nutrient-reduction strategies, which implies to the public that somehow we’re going to use less fertilizer. If we were going to continue to rank near the No. 1 corn and soybean state, we probably weren’t going to use less fertilizer. We might need to use more in some cases. But we all can support reducing nutrient losses.”
To achieve this goal, the INLRS focuses on the 4R nutrient plan of applying fertilizer at the:
* Right time
* Right source
* Right rate
* Right place
*Avoiding nutrient application on frozen or snow-covered soils.
* Soil-testing at least once every four years and following recommended removal rates for P and potassium (K).
* Stabilizing all fall-applied N and waiting until soil temperatures drop to 50°F. to curb N losses through leaching and
What works better for avoiding nitrate-N losses, though, is shifting more N applications from the fall into the next growing season, says Payne. Prior to 2010, 70% of N applied in central and northern Illinois for corn was fall-applied as anhydrous ammonia, says Payne. Estimated fall N applications are now 50%. They are made at a lower rate and are often part of a split fall-spring strategy.
Shifting N applications from fall into the next year, however, required buy-in from fertilizer firms. “We fully support the strategy,” says David Stanko, senior director of sustainable agriculture for Nutrien Ag Solutions. “It tightens the spring window from a logistics standpoint, but we saw an opportunity to help growers be more efficient by shifting more fall application business into spring or even splitting (N applications) between fall and spring.”
Incorporating the 4Rs also meant switching from yield-based recommendations that assigned 1.2 pounds of N to produce 1 bushel of corn to the MRTN (maximum return to nitrogen) strategy. This strategy, developed by land-grant universities, predicts N use for corn using a database that includes hundreds of regional on-farm N rate trials. It determines at what rate the applied N will produce optimal economic yields, based on N and corn prices.
“We had farmers using upwards of 220 pounds (per acre) of nitrogen because they may have been using the old yield-based recommendation instead of the MRTN,” says Payne.
Trials conducted in farmers’ fields by the IFCA and funded by the NREC showed Illinois farmers could apply less N under the MRTN strategy – .7 to .8 pounds of N per corn bushel – and still maintain yields. For example, IFCA trials showed the MRTN rate for central Illinois in the fall of 2018 was 178 pounds per acre of N for corn following soybeans, and 203 pounds per acre for corn following corn for 220 bushel per acre yields. Under the old 1.2 pound of N per bushel metric, N rates would have been around 264 pounds per acre.
The MRTN is still a best-guess N predictor, as the right rate cannot not be known until after harvest. Yet, the MRTN has proven that ‘insurance N’ applications have little benefit, says Payne. IFCA trials show an extra 20 to 40 pounds per acre outside the MRTN range glean just an additional 4 or 5 bushels per acre.
“Those last bushels of yield you produce can cost more than it’s worth,” says Fabian Fernandez, a University of Minnesota Extension soil fertility specialist.
Much Work Remains
The 2019 INLRS biennial numbers does show statewide increases in nitrate-N and total P loads are skewed. One river basin, the Rock River, showed a 104% increase in nitrate-N loads in 2013-2017 compared with a 1980-1996 baseline. Meanwhile, nitrate-N loads in the Illinois River basin, the largest source of water leaving Illinois, decreased 2%.
“Some of the increase (in rivers like the Rock) could be attributed to the increased amount of rainfall in those years,” says Kris Reynolds, Midwest regional director for American Farmland Trust. The estimated statewide average water flow during 2013-2017 was about 13% greater than in 1980-1996.
Farming also isn’t the only source of nutrients in water, either. “Especially after soybeans, we have seen nitrate levels increase in field tiles without nutrient applications due to mineralization,” says Tadgh Davis, technical sales manager with The Mosaic Company.
Still, all acknowledge more steps will be needed than the 4Rs. The 2019 INLRS biennial report states a mix – the 4Rs, widespread cover crop adoption, bioreactors, reduced tillage, and other practices – will be needed to achieve the 45% reductions in nitrate-N and total P by 2035. Annual costs to do this range from $827 million to $878 million, which is a high hurdle.
“We need more farmers to adopt cover crops if we want to reduce nitrate and phosphorus loss,” says Reynolds. The 2017 Census of Agriculture shows cover crops were grown on just 810,000 acres (3%) out of Illinois’ 27 million agricultural acres.
“My fear is if we don’t come close to interim INLRS goals, there will be pressure for more regulations,” he says. “Regulations can be helpful, but unless done the right way, they potentially could set us back even further.”
For now, though, the voluntary approach formed by the INLRS and NREC-funded research remains intact.
“We have learned a lot about timing of N applications when used with cover crops, especially cereal rye after corn and how much N can be sequestered from the cover crop,” says Steve Stierwalt, a Sadorus, Illinois, farmer. “It is good local information on which to base practices.”
Meanwhile, federal, state, and private entities can help share the costs of cover crops and other conservation tools for Illinois farmers. Ultimately, though, it’s the long-term soil and economic benefits that will drive change, believes Stierwalt.
“Cost sharing has been the best tool we’ve had in our toolbox, but there is a weakness with it,” he says. “Very often, we, as farmers, will try a practice just for the cost sharing as opposed to learning how to do the practice. Too often, as the cost sharing ends, so does the practice. For the long term, farmers will have to learn how tools like cover crops fit a system.”
A major factor in all this has been parties often at odds joining forces, adds Reynolds.
“I think a key was having representatives from diverse groups at the table from the beginning, and adding partners to the strategy committee through the process,” he points out.
SO FAR, SO GOOD?
Development of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (INLRS) has thus far helped nix litigation, such as the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit filed in 2015 (and dismissed in 2017).
“One big difference between Iowa and Illinois is we asked the Illinois environmental groups to join agricultural groups on the NREC (Nutrient Research & Education Council) to help us identify and promote research and educational efforts to reduce nutrient losses and how to best allocate the money (contributed by farmers and fertilizer dealers),” says Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association.
At this point, the INLRS has also helped stave off additional regulations, as has been done in Ohio.
“Whether or not you can blame all of Lake Erie’s problems on agriculture is really beside the point,” says Payne. “Now, fertilizer dealers (in Ohio) have to watch the weather forecast before they can go out and spread P (phosphorus) and K (potassium) in the fall.
“After what happened in Ohio, it’s pretty easy for any legislator in Minnesota or Iowa or Illinois or Missouri to say, ‘Well, why don’t we do what they did in Ohio?’” she adds. “It can be tempting for those looking for easy answers – which don’t exist – to pick up laws from other states and attempt to plug them into the statutes of our state.”
HELP FOR COVER CROPS
Cover crops play a key role in slicing nutrient escapes.
Still, hurdles exist. For example, a Purdue University example pegs seeding and terminating costs at $35 per acre.
Farmers may also hesitate to invest on rented land. “In some areas, up to 70% of Iowa’s ground is owned by nonfarmers,” says Adam Kiel, director of conservation and external programs for the Iowa Soybean Association. “It can be challenging for farmers to invest in practices on land they may not farm the next year.”
Incentives exist, though. Illinois’ Fall Covers for Spring Savings plan is modeled after Iowa’s $5-per-acre cash crop discount on crop insurance for adopting cover crops. Participating farmers have used the program to receive a $5-per-acre crop insurance discount.
Over time, long-term benefits also accrue. “My tile waters are clear, with lower levels of nitrates, due to cereal rye uptake,” says Dick Lyons, Harvel, Illinois, who started no-tilling corn in 1976 and soybeans in 1996. He’s on year seven of blanketing all his acres with cover crops. Lyons also variable-rate applies fertilizer.
Besides reducing runoff, such tactics also retain nutrients for crops, says Eliot Clay, agriculture and water programs director for the Illinois Environmental Council. “If you can get your soil to hold more nitrogen and phosphorus, it is better than having it run off,” he points out.
Fall nitrogen (N) application can spread out workload and time, but it comes with a drawback.
“The soil is not a good N savings account,” says Fabian Fernandez, a University of Minnesota (U of M) Extension soil scientist. “There is potential for losses from fall applications compared with spring applications.”
Steve Stierwalt, a Sadorus, Illinois, farmer, concurs. “Fall application is just a leaky system,” he says.
That’s why he’s made a switch to applying N during the growing season using the 4R program that’s part of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (INLRS). The components of the 4R program include:
* Right Time
* Right Source
* Right Rate
* Right Place
Five years ago, Stierwalt began splitting N applications between fall, planting, and sidedressed applications. Last year, he axed fall N applications for 100% growing season applications. That’s because wet fall 2018 weather nixed autumn anhydrous ammonia applications.
“I put on 30% of the N at planting and sidedressed the balance,” he says. “We learned that even in a tough year, we can get it done more efficiently.”
Applying anhydrous ammonia with a nitrification inhibitor is one way to limit fall N loss, says Fernandez. There is still potential for losses compared to spring, he says. Still, it’s better than applying a form like urea in the fall that readily nitrifies, he says.
It’s easy to say farmers should use soil health tools like cover crops.
In practice, it’s much tougher.
“Every time a farmer changes practices, there is risk,” says Steve Stierwalt, a Sadorus, Illinois, farmer. “For farmers to make a change, they need to see a reason to make a change.”
Garnering a prospective landlord’s attention can be one of those reasons. “Many absentee landowners have an interest in farms being managed sustainably,” he says.
One program that helps Illinois farmers measure sustainability is the Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources (S.T.A.R.) program. It ranks farms on a 1-5-star basis when farmers adopt tools like:
* Cover crops
* Nutrient management
* Crop rotation
* Inclusion of livestock
* Edge-of-field treatments like bioreactors
The S.T.A.R. program was created by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District in 2017 to meet help farmers meet Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy goals. There’s potential for expand it to other states, says Stierwalt.
The S.T.A.R program also helps educate the public about conservation practices, says Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance.
“It helps people understand what a field of cover crops looks like,” she says. “The program has spread like wildfire across Illinois.”