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Farm Bureau president urges nutrient management

This month the state of Iowa is starting a voluntary nutrient management program that drew praise from EPA administrator Gina McCarthy when she visited the Iowa State Fair.

It's not the mandate that some environmental groups want. Essentially, farm groups have gotten the approach they prefer to reducing nitrate and phosphorous entering streams and rivers. Yet, when Craig Hill, president of Iowa Farm Bureau Federation kicked off his group's annual policy meeting this week, it wasn't to declare a political victory. Instead, he urged each delegate to be a model of improved practices.

"Farmer to farmer, let's look at one another, as stewards of the land, and take a long, hard look at how we care for two of our most precious resources: soil and water," Hill said. "It has never been more important than today to have this dialog with each other about conservation. We must go beyond talking, to doing what is right for your farm and for all of Iowa's natural resources."

On his own farm near Milo in southern Iowa, Hill said, "I know we can do more."

"We have nearly 5 miles of terraces, numerous buffers, waterways…[and] also have five manmade ponds. Over half of our acres are no-till. We stabilize our nitrogen [in manure and commercial fertilizer], and we late-season apply much of our commercial fertilizer. We add to our conservation effort every year and still need to do more."

To boost this voluntary effort, the Iowa legislature has appropriated some $22 million, which includes funds to eliminate a backlog of state conservation cost-share money for traditional soil conservation practices. Part of that is $2.8 million for one-time funding for science-based nutrient management practices over the next five years. This week, the Iowa Department of Land Stewardship announced that in August, more than 1,000 farmers applied for the grants to try practices on 120,680 acres.

Most of that will pay $25 an acre for cover crops on more than 109,000 acres. Farmers who use a nitrification inhibitor on another 7,331 acres will get $3 an acre. A cost share of $10 an acre for trying either no-till or strip till will affect nearly 4,000 acres. Only farmers not already using those practices were eligible, and the grants were limited to 160 acres. That had the effect of making the conservation effort widespread -- in 97 of the state's 100 Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Because the cost-share is a 50% match, total investment will be $5.6 million.

In an interview after the Farm Bureau meeting, Hill told Agriculture Online that some of the cover crop seed, mainly rye and several grasses, is already being flown onto soybean fields.

And the effort will be part of a larger voluntary use of nutrient conserving practices such as bioreactors and split applications of nitrogen applied as the plant needs it.

The state-level cost sharing will affect about one-half of 1% of the 23.6 million acres planted to corn, soybeans, and oats in Iowa this year.

Hill is well aware of the skeptics in the state's environmental community, as well as the director of the Des Moines Water Works, which this year has spent $900,000 removing excess nitrates from river water to comply with federal drinking water standards. Hill said that's mainly due to an unusual spike that followed last year's drought and the wettest spring on record. Records show that nitrates in the two rivers near Des Moines had been trending downward from 2006 until last year, he said.

Hill believes the voluntary program based on scientifically proven practices will be more effective than regulations.

The state's nutrient management program has no deadline.

"We've launched the beginning of a very long-term effort to improve water quality and conservation," Hill said. And Farm Bureau won't be the only group promoting. The legislature also funded research and outreach by Iowa State University.

Hill said his speech urging farmers to step up their nutrient management efforts seemed to be well received.

"I had no one say we were off-track. They were glad to hear it," he said.

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