Nitrogen modeling shows its value in tough year

What do you think of when you hear the term, “nutrient stewardship?” Increased regulations? Reduced cost? More efficient fertility? Or does it simply mean “doing the right thing?”

This past year, MFA offered a nitrogen tool that modeled nitrogen loss and helped producers and agronomists make educated decisions on an acre-by-acre basis. Usage of the tool grew from 30,000 acres in 2018 to 160,000 acres in 2019. Talk about a year to launch a tool for nitrogen loss! We had record rainfall at the wrong time. We experienced prolonged periods of saturated soils that ultimately caused us to lose higher-than-normal amounts of nitrogen in some areas. 

What did we gain from this tool?

While this tool does allow us to export VRT (variable rate technology) recommendations to load in the spreader, what we found was that nitrogen modeling gave us some insights to soil type, production practices and weather—to name a few. This model uses several layers to predict nitrogen loss. While the tool isn’t the gospel, it does start the conversation around nutrient stewardship, allowing us to make sure we are taking care of the crop while not overapplying or underapplying nitrogen.

What are the results?

The combines started rolling the first week of September in our southern area and will continue harvesting for a while. We expect to see a greater NUE (nitrogen use efficiency) where the model’s recommendations were followed, but time will tell. The ultimate determining factor will be ROI. What can this tool and many others do to the bottom line for your operation? We have looked at and tested these and many others throughout the past couple seasons, but never in a year with this much moisture and with saturated soils for this long. These are some of the questions we will address as we collect data from our research sites. 

What other nitrogen issues are we facing?

Every spring I get asked if we need to protect our anhydrous with a stabilizer. And the answer is, “yes.” This year was a great case study for why you need to protect NH3 with an effective stabilizer. I’ve been in fields that had spring-applied anhydrous ammonia with and without the nitrogen stabilizer, N-Serve, and, boy, a visual difference was apparent. The truth will come when combines roll across the field. Same with top dress. We need to make sure we are protecting our urea with N-Guard, which contains nBPT to combat volatilization, or by using Super-U, which has both nBPT and dicyandiamide (DCD) to protect nitrogen above and below ground.

Other factors to consider?

I’ve traveled across our trade area and have seen fields that look great next to fields that have plenty of cover—from cover crops to just natural cover of weeds, mainly waterhemp and marestail. This will provide many other challenges that I will discuss another time. However, one topic that I do want to cover is the amount of erosion I’ve witnessed this year. While we all know this wasn’t a normal year and hope we don’t see this again, we can learn from these challenges. Some of the observations that I took away was the color of water runoff from many of the fields. I had the opportunity to see fields with and without cover crops, tillage versus no-till, etc. There a big difference. Where cover crops were planted and no-till was used, there was little to no color in the water leaving the field, while tilled fields were another story. On the other hand, tilled fields with cover crops still had loss of soil, but it was significantly reduced compared to the no-cover tilled fields. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what needs to be done. 

When developing a nutrient stewardship plan, keep in mind it is a living plan that will need to be adjusted when weather events, crop failures or other obstacles get thrown your way. Reach out to your local MFA to make a plan today.

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Nutrient management benefits you, the environment

 If you are familiar at all with agronomy and read the words “Nutrient Management Plan,” you probably picture a huge binder full of government documents—a bunch of boring tables and graphs that don’t mean anything to 99% of people who try to read it. With precision technology and the ability to process data in ways that show what’s happening on the farm, those days are over. 

There are many benefits to sitting down and making a plan, whether it’s fertility or other aspects of crop production. Planning allows you to account for all the steps necessary to take your production in a positive direction. The following are environmental risks that can be mitigated and averted by planning and following a nutrient management plan for both crop and pasture production. 

Managing N, P, K, micronutrients and pH. In agronomics, high yields depend on matching fertility inputs to crop removals and ensuring the proper amount of nutrients are banked in the soil. It turns out that areas of high productivity also pose a much lower risk environmentally than areas of poor fertility. The reason is simple—if high yields are being attained, then the plants are healthy and quickly taking up any fertilizer placed there. In areas that return low yields due to a lack of soil nutrients or other extraneous factors, plants aren’t as ready to uptake applied nutrients. This leaves those nutrients vulnerable to loss via leaching or binding to soil particles and being washed away. Applied nutrients must also be available to the plant, which is why balancing soil pH is critical to the success of any plan. If nutrients are in adequate supply, but the soil is too acidic to allow uptake, they are vulnerable to loss. Lack of plant growth also impacts residue on the soil surface. The less residue, the more erosion. Rain events can move more soil in areas of low fertility, resulting in even more nutrient losses. The best thing we can do is keep our most productive areas productive and build fertility in sub-par areas.

Correcting areas of high soil-test phosphorus. Missouri has a robust livestock industry, and where there is—or was—livestock, there is manure. Repeated applications of manure on feedlots, pastures and areas of high animal concentration can lead to high soil-test phosphorus values. Because phosphorus binds to soil particles, excess P levels are prone to loss from runoff. When areas of high P are identified, it’s important to mitigate erosion and initiate changes in a fertility plan to lower risk of nutrient loading in our waterways. Again, maintaining the top layer of soil on the field is critical to minimizing nutrient loss.

Having a plan for nitrogen. Many folks talk about nitrogen planning, making split applications, using inhibitors and similar practices but fail to follow through in implementation. All of these things used in conjunction really do pay big dividends in how much total N gets applied to the field, how much of that N is plant-available at the right time, and, the most environmentally important, how much is left at the end of the season. Since nitrogen is generally paid for, there’s certainly benefit to making sure we hit the right target and don’t leave a significant amount in the field. This can be done by making sure we account for inputs from all fertilizer products, know our soil and consider any losses. A written plan can keep you on track for knowing how to steward N properly.

Combining all these aspects of nutrient management planning can make your farm not just more environmentally friendly but also significantly more efficient. Grid sampling and planning through the Nutri-Track program is a great avenue. Recently, around 25 MFA personnel have become certified as technical service providers, which enables them to write Nutrient Management Plans for USDA-NRCS financial assistance. For a plan to get financial assistance, an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) application must be completed with your local NRCS office during the fall signup. Our MFA technical service providers are experts in managing your fertilizer inputs to help meet yield goals and to put together production plans covering the entire soil-test cycle. 

If you are interested ways to maximize your fertilizer investment and make your farm less environmentally sensitive through nutrient management, contact me or any member of MFA’s Precision Agronomy team.

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Funds may be available to restore flooded farmland

Producers who have suffered severe losses as a result of recent flooding may be eligible for assistance under the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP) admin­istered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) in these Missouri counties: Boone, Callaway, Carroll, Chariton, Clark, Clay, Cooper, Daviess, Gentry, Grundy, Howard, Jackson, Lafay­ette, Lewis, Lincoln, Linn, Livingston, Marion, Mercer, Moni­teau, Pike, Ray, Saline, Sullivan, St. Charles and St. Louis.

A producer qualifying for ECP assistance may receive cost-share levels up to 75 percent of the eligible cost of restoration measures. The 2018 Farm Bill authorizes socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers and ranchers to earn up to 90 percent cost share of the total allowable costs.

The following types of measures may be eligible:

  • • Removing debris from farmland
  • • Grading, shaping or releveling severely damaged farmland
  • • Restoring permanent fences
  • • Restoring conservation structures and other similar in­stallations

Producers should contact their local FSA county office to request assistance until Aug. 30, 2019. For more informa­tion, visit

In July, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Ser­vice (NRCS) announced the availability of $217.5 million dedicated to funding conservation easements on certain lands damaged by flooding and other natural disasters. Funds are made available through the floodplain easement component of the Emergency Watershed Protection Pro­gram. Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa are among the 11 states currently identified for funding.

In this voluntary program, eligible applicants agree to sell a permanent conservation easement to the United States through NRCS. Compensation is based on the value of the easement as determined by an appraisal or market analysis. These easements may occur on public or private agricultur­al land or residential properties damaged by flooding and natural disasters. NRCS will work to restore the easement to its natural floodplain condition.

Individuals and communities in any state are encouraged to contact their local NRCS field offices for more informa­tion on these floodplain easement opportunities or visit

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Turbocharge yields with nitrogen-fungicide synergy

Turbocharged engines are pop­ular in many vehicles today because of the improved performance they provide. The turbocharger boosts horsepower, or output, while in­creasing fuel efficiency. It works by capturing unused energy from the engine exhaust to power a turbine. This, in turn, powers a compressor, which forces air into the intake of the vehicle, allowing a greater percentage of fuel to burn with each stroke of the engine. The result is greater output with less fuel by introducing a little more air.

The turbocharger is a really good example of synergy, where the out­put seems to outpace the cost of the inputs. Synergies in crop inputs are often misunderstood, oversold or dismissed, but some combinations do work and pay big dividends. One such example of successful synergy is the use of foliar slow-release nitrogen (SRN) in conjunc­tion with foliar-applied fungicides.

Slow-release nitrogen products are often touted as a more efficient method of N delivery in which low-use rates can replace multiple pounds of soil-applied N to reach a similar yield. In my opinion, this is the worst expectation to have from an SRN. It can’t replace sound base nitrogen fertility—just like a turbo would be useless if there were no oxygen to pump into the system.

Where slow-release nitrogen can really shine is when used with stro­bilurin fungicides. Beyond disease control, fungicide benefits include stay-green, stress tolerance and standability. What we don’t often discuss is where those advantages come from. With stress tolerance, increased photosynthesis and grain fill, the biggest impact comes from increased efficiency in nitrogen me­tabolism. The trick is having enough available N to “boost” that process.

Like the turbocharger increases the amount of oxygen for an engine to more efficiently burn fuel, SRNs provide enough nitrogen to allow fungicides to reduce stress and promote plant growth, resulting in more gain at higher N efficiency.

We’ve seen positive results of an SRN-fungicide combination in trials like the one conducted by Dr. Kelly Nelson with the University of Missouri’s Greenley Research Sta­tion. He added 1 gallon of SRN to a fungicide application of Headline AMP at tassel to corn. While Head­line alone added 14.5 bushels per acre, adding SRN led to an increase of more than 25 bushels per acre. Thanks to the synergy created by the combined application, the amount of N is far less than required to add 9 bushels in traditional thinking.

Slow-release nitrogen products have been available for quite some time, and we have recommend­ed them as a way to increase the efficiency of a fungicide application. Recently, MFA took it a step further by introducing a new proprietary product, Gold Advantage Trend-B, which is an SRN with boron added. Boron is an essential nutrient need­ed during the crop’s reproductive stages for grain development.

The issue with boron, unlike many plant nutrients, is that it is very mobile in the soil but not in the plant. This means that even if you do fertilize with boron up front, what is not taken up early is likely lost, and what is taken up early does not move in the plant to areas it is most needed. A plant with a fungicide plus SRN and deficient boron is like a turbo’s boost being held back by an engine with poor timing. Trend-B not only adds the small amount of available N nec­essary to help a fungicide “turbo­charge” plant performance, but it also helps maintain optimal boron nutrition, which is often needed late in the season.

Proper timing is critical to get the most out of these applications. Talk with your Crop-Trak consultant or other experts at your MFA loca­tion today about the opportunity to improve your crop’s health and increase yields by combining fungi­cides with SRN foliar nutrition.

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Conservation in the 2018 Farm Bill

The long-awaited 2018 Farm Bill was finally passed late last year and contains language dictating federal farm policy for at least the next five years. Though not a major funding part of the bill, the conservation sections play a significant role in resource conservation and wildlife habitat placement on agriculture lands. These programs fund many practices, from short-term conserva­tion such as annual cover cropping for soil health to perpetual wetland easements that protect fish and wild­life habitat permanently.

Each of the four main programs persist in the new legislation though funding levels have shifted slightly.

Conservation Reserve Program

CRP, acreage caps and soil rental rates typically steal the show in any conservation-related discussion over the farm bill, and 2018 was no exception. Moving forward, there will be a few changes to CRP. The acreage cap will grow from a current 24 million acres to 27 million by 2023, with at least 30% of those acres being enrolled in one of the continuous CRP practices. These typically target high-value habitat or priority concerns such as buffer strips, waterways, etc. Rental rates and signup incentive payments have also been decreased for any new CRP contracts. Under a general signup, the soil rental rate will now be no more than 85% of the county average, with continuous signups being no more than 90%.

It’s yet to be determined if these changes will impact recent increased demand for CRP. Language regard­ing timing for signups for CRP has been fairly vague from USDA. It has been hinted that continuous signups may start first, followed by a general signup this winter. One other im­portant note is that a general signup is mandated to be held at least yearly, and with the number of acres com­ing out increasing, there will likely be acres available in the near future.

Conservation Stewardship Program

Originally rumored to be terminat­ed in the new farm bill, CSP will persist. However, funding will be cut for the program slowly over time. Contract extensions will be granted, and there may be opportunities for additional signups moving forward. The first signup for CSP under the 2018 legislation appeared in mid- April with a May 10, 2019, dead­line. This signup timing has been consistent over the past few years, and as long as funding will allow, signups will likely continue to roll out at this timeframe. The main ad­justment that may affect the program is funding levels will now be based on an annual dollar allocation versus annual acreage caps.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program

Where CSP got a trim in the new farm bill, EQIP picked up some slack with an increase of more than $1 billion over the term of the legislation. Most of the program’s structure will remain the same as the 2014 version, with some flexibility on practice payments. The funding pool that did increase was wildlife provisions, expanding from a total of 5% to 10%. If you were considering an EQIP application to implement wildlife habitat in your operation, now could be great time to apply.

Keep in mind there are multiple benefits to most practices. For exam­ple, doing some brush management on field edges is certainly beneficial to wildlife but can also increase yields due to increased water, sun­light and nutrient availability.

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program

The main conservation title in ACEP is Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE), formerly known as WRP easements. Funding for easements as a whole increased to $450 million a year. For MFA trade territory, this should mean new easements available to those interested in WRE through the term of the 2018 bill.

Whatever conservation goals you have moving forward, there’s a good amount of support in this farm bill. The theme under conservation seems to be water quality. Some em­bedded titles within CRP and others will highlight new and existing programs geared toward managing runoff from agricultural lands.

If you are interested in any of these programs, keep in touch with your local USDA Service Center as the 2018 Farm Bill gets implement­ed. Remember that MFA is ready to assist you with the goods and ser­vices needed to place conservation on the landscape.

Adam Jones joined MFA as natu­ral resource conservation specialist in January 2019 after more than 10 years with the Missouri Department of Conservation, most recently as a wildlife management biologist. Adam grew up on a small livestock and row-crop farm in Lewis County, Mo., before earning a degree in fisheries and wildlife at the University of Missouri. A lifelong outdoorsman, he now enjoys hunting and camping with his wife, Heather, and their three children.

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