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Conservation Corner

Partnership equals Successful watershed project

Wed, August 24, 2011

The success of large-scale on-farm research hinges on the collaboration between growers and industry, and a prime example is the Indian Creek Watershed Project.

Fertilizer companies and applicators partnered with the Harms, Steffen and Traub families in the research effort aimed at determining conservation agricultural systems to measure the effectiveness of different nutrient management systems on local farms.

One example of this teamwork can be seen at the Harms farm with Agrium, John Deere and Crop Product Services participating in nitrogen application timing and rate testing.

Testing on the Harms farm includes demonstrating three different application times – fall, spring and split application of one-half in fall and one-half in spring.

A second demonstration compares the full recommended nitrogen rate with a reduced rate — 85 percent of recommended rate — using Agrium’s controlled-release source, Environmentally Smart Nitrogen.

Kevin Harms explained the research effort on his family farm during a recent tour, noting that he operates the farm along with his son, Danny, and Kevin’s brother, Norman.

The Harms family farms about 3,250 acres in Livingston, McLean and Ford counties. They had a dairy operation until 2007 and now focus on corn and soybeans.

“We became involved in the Indian Creek Watershed Project last summer. We signed up five different enhancements or practices,” said Kevin Harms. “We use cover crops in the fall for scavenging nitrogen. We put it on after cornstalks to protect from soil erosion and organic matter buildup and maybe some tilth.

“On the nitrogen, we’ve started doing a nitrate testing. Our normal program was fall anhydrous — side-dressing is something that we’re going back into, so we test the nitrates in the soil before we side-dress and go by the recommendations given to us for that.”

The Harms take stalk samples at black layer in the fall and analyze them for nitrate levels.

“It’s a way to perhaps manage next year’s nitrogen. We’ll find out whether there were extra nitrates left over in the stalk or not from our application this year,” Harms said.

Pointing to the field at the tour stop, Harms said a nitrogen study of four 20-acre side-by-sides is being conducted.

“We have 20 acres of ESN applied this spring. We divided that into two 10-acre plots, one with the normal 150-pound application and the other with approximately 15 percent reduction at 125 pounds, which is what the company advertises you can do with the ESN,” he said.

“It’s a little more expensive product, but if you could reduce the rates, it could be a very attractive way of applying nitrogen. The sustained release part of it makes it environmentally friendly, and hopefully this sustained release will be yield friendly, too.

“We side-dressed the next two plots at 150 pounds of 28 when the corn was about one foot tall. Next to that are one-half 75 pounds in the fall of anhydrous and 75 pounds of 28 side-dressed. The fourth plot is for our normal program of 150 pounds of fall anhydrous. Hopefully, we’ll get some interesting comparisons out of that.

“They asked me why we were doing this, and I said to be honest I thought it would be a good way to find a way to produce a crop cheaper and use our nutrients more. But obviously the real purpose of this is to improve water quality not only here in the Indian Creek Watershed, but all the way through the Mississippi River Basin.”

“We want to get that nitrogen in the plant when it needs it,” said Tim Smith of Cropsmith.

Smith is contracted through the Conservation Technology Infor mation Center, which assisted Harold Reetz of Reetz Agronomics to design the demonstration sites and nutrient efficiency studies.

“These plots are going to help us demonstrate if these different management practices are better in this watershed. Then we can take those results to all the farmers and help them fine-tune their nitrogen rates and their timing and their placement and maybe even their product selection,” Smith said.

“We want to make everybody a better farmer, everybody more efficient, we want to make the water a little cleaner and we want to make the yields a little higher.”

Also during the Harms farm tour stop, John Niemeyer, Agrium sales representative, explained the use of ESN.

Niemeyer said is a coated urea nitrogen fertilizer that delivers nitrogen to the crop with control and predictability. A flexible, micro-thin polymer coating over top of the nitrogen granule enables this precision.

This unique membrane allows water to diffuse into the granule, dissolving the nitrogen within, according to Niemeyer.

The urea liquefies into a nitrogen solution, yet remains encapsulated within the coating. The tightly controlled and consistent coating process produces a product that performs consistently.

The nitrogen solution moves through the membranes in a predictable manner, matching the nitrogen demand curve of the corp.

“The product is designed to put on just before corn. When you use it in the springtime, it will release slowly at first when the corn is very small,” Niemeyer explained.

He said as the soil warms and crop growth continues, the granules release nitrogen more quickly and steadily. This continues throughout the growing season to keep up with the rapid plant growth. This process is called temperature controlled diffusion.

John Deere’s role on the Harms farm involved providing through Crop Production Services a John Deere 2510H nutrient applicator to apply fertilizer.

Pauley Bradley, John Deere nutrient application product manager, said there were three reasons that John Deere became involved in this study.

“Nitrogen is critical for us to raise the food and feed and fuel that we need to feed the market, and we know we’re under pressure with how we manage our nitrogen. This was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate some technologies,” Bradley said.

“About five years ago, John Deere recognized that there was need in the marketplace to develop some technologies to apply nitrogen more timely — in-season nitrogen application. So we developed some technologies to help do that more productively and profitably with less risk. One of the products we brought to market was 2510H toolbar applicator to inject nitrogen in-season.”

Deere’s 2510H Nutrient Applicator employs high-speed, low-disturbance injection technology to place anhydrous ammonia beneath the soil surface. It uses 30 percent less fuel and disturbs the soil less than traditional shank-and-knife application.

“That was one reason we had the opportunity to participate with other companies like Agrium with our technologies and see how we can improve agriculture and corn growing,” Bradley said.

“The second reason is this initiative is unique in the fact that its ambition was to try to get at least 50 percent of the corn growers and acres involved the watershed engaged in participating and applying practices to their land.

“That was something that gained a lot of attention around what agriculture can do if it really unifies and you get a large broad effort like that. We wanted to see what the outcome would be, so we’re interested to find out what that will be, understanding it will take a few years before we see meaningful results.

“The third reason is partnerships. We’ve been a supporting of Conservation Technology Information Center, and they are engaged in this. We also worked with Crop Production Services, the local retailer here, to use that toolbar on about 2,300 acres here in the watershed.”

The CTIC and Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District are project leads. Project partners include the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency with funding provided through the Clean Water Act and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as support from corporate sponsors.

Adapted from an article by   By Tom Doran in the AgriNews




‘Environmental audit’ aids Farmer

Tue, August 23, 2011

John Traub admits he was becoming one of those farmers who did the same thing over and over again, but that all changed with his involvement in conservation and research programs.

The Traub family enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program about two years ago and is among three family farms involved in the new Indian Creek Watershed Project.

The Traub farm is a multi-generational farm based in southern Livingston County. Since 1980, John and Bonnie have farmed with son John C. and his wife, Diane. In 2008, son John Jacob Traub and his wife, Kristin, joined the operation.

The Traubs grow corn; soybeans and specialty hybrid seed corn, as well as hybrid sunflowers over 4,000 acres, and were named the county’s Soil and Water Conservation District’s 2010 Farm Family of the Year.

“We worked with Terry Bachtold, Livingston County SWCD ag resource coordinator through the process, we worked with the staff at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and found it to be a real rewarding or eye-opening,” Traub said during a recent tour of the three farms enrolled in the watershed project.

“The process is more like an environmental audit of what you’re doing farming practice-wise and with the tillage and fertilizer applications that you’re doing. The process itself is good because it made us stop and think about what we were doing.

“I found myself more and more becoming a crotchety old farmer that does the same thing over and over and over again, and yet this process made us stop and think about OK, why do we do that? Is there a benefit to it? Are we putting these nutrients in the right place at the right time and the right amount?

“Just going through the process of this CSP program, whether you decide to participate in it or not, was good for us.”

The CSP and Indian Creek Watershed Projects are both voluntary, allowing growers to opt in or out or select what practices they want to continue or add.

The watershed project is an effort to increase the adoption of conservation agricultural systems and measure the effectiveness of different nutrient management practices on local farms.

The watershed project research on the Traub farm includes using fall-applied nitrogen with an RTK strip-till system and comparing it to a conventional chisel plow system.

A special feature at this site is the demonstration of nitrogen use efficiency rate comparison, done with field-scale equipment so that the farm can apply the rate treatments and harvest the plots with conventional equipment without interrupting the family’s normal production routine. This demonstrates a simple approach to on-farm research that every farmer can adopt.

“We’re using his equipment to do different rates of nitrogen across the field,” said Tim Smith of Cropsmith, one of the watershed project planners. We’re comparing two different systems in this case. We’re comparing a strip-till system versus more of a traditional chisel plow system so the application of the nitrogen doesn’t correspond with the planting.

“One of the things that has made that available is the advent of the global positioning system technology and the controllers that we have available to do it.”

Traub will use his own yield monitor at harvest.

“We’ll take that yield monitor data and analyze that to determine what the optimum N rate is for this year. That will provide us with some good information on what the right rate is and whether this placement system is more efficient than other placement systems,” Smith said.

“We’d like to do more of these on-farm field scale trials. You can do a lot of small farm stuff, but when you do it in a farmer’s field with his own equipment, that’s where the proof really is. That proves the concept.

“There is lots of data out there about best management practices, but until you do it on your own farm and get comfortable with the fact that maybe you can do it this way and use a little less nitrogen or maybe a side-dress application is more efficient than a fall application.

“When you’ve fought through those things yourself, that’s when you change the way you’re doing things, and once you’ve changed the way you’re doing things, it stays ingrained for a long time until somebody makes you change and do something different.”

“A good part of this project, and one of the main things that I think is a real benefit, is it shows that we are proactive and that we’re interested in our environment,” Traub said. “I think in the current budget and political environment we find ourselves in, it’s been easy to vilify or paint big ag, big production or whatever you want to call it as kind of the bogeyman and blame a lot on the ag industry for some of the things that are going on in the Mississippi River Basin.

“Whether it’s justified or not, although we’re important, the reality is we’re a small political constituency and I think it’s been easy to dump a lot of the responsibility for the problems on us. This project shows we’re not bogeymen out here poisoning the atmosphere and killing our environment. We breathe the air, we drink the water just like our neighbors and we’re concerned about doing the right thing.

“That’s an important thing about the watershed, and if we as producers can enroll our farms in this program, we can maybe change a few things, do some things different, adopt a few conservation practices. The program is designed that we get rewarded for those things that we’re doing. If we can make a difference in the water and we can show the benefits to our neighbors, I think the project is really worthwhile.”

Fertility management practices have been ongoing at the Traub farm, so enrolling in the watershed project has been an ideal fit for the family.

The Traubs strip-till corn and no-till soybeans in a rotation over the majority of their acres. A continuous corn system, matched with conservation mulch till and some strip-till is used on the flatter and more productive farms or where manure is available.

The Traubs’ tillage and crop system goal is to maximize and maintain crop yields while providing each farm with the best erosion and water quality protection possible. They installed terraces, buffer strips, filter strips, grass waterways and drainage tile on some of the more “challenging” ground to help protect soil and water quality.

The family prefers to use a 3.3-acre GPS grid system for soil testing. They use standards and recommendations from the University of Illinois and U of I Extension for fertility issues and test each tract every four years. A more frequent testing schedule is used where manure is applied.

Traub finds variable rate application technology to be most cost-effective and accurate.

“On a personal note, when I think about nutrient management and conservation, in particular, I guess I can’t think about conservation without thinking about God’s perfect creation,” Traub said. “He has really blessed this area with wonderful soil resources, natural resources, and for all of us who are farmers out here, we got the opportunity to be God’s gardeners so to speak.

“When I think about conservation and I think about His creation, I guess in the end I would like to think that when I pass away that God will look at me and say, ‘Well, you know that guy was a pretty good gardener,’ and I’d like to leave His garden better than how I found it.”

The Conservation Technology Information Center and Livingston County SWCD are project leads. Project partners include the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency with funding provided through the Clean Water Act and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, as well as support from corporate sponsors.
NRCS is continuously taking applications for the CSP program year around.  So if you are interested stop in and see your local District Conservationist and submit an application for the program.

Adapted from an article by Tom Doran
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Published in AgriNews



Need Soils Site Data?

Tue, August 23, 2011

Before you dig or build—in fact, before you start planning to dig or build—there is something you must investigate first: the soil. To assist your research, consider using a digital soils application created by professional soil scientists nationwide—the Web Soil Survey According to all the soil scientists at the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), you’ll be glad you did!

“The science of soil is a fascinating area of study,” says Gary Struben, State Soil Scientist for Illinois’ NRCS. “The Web Soil Survey, or WSS, is a modern application that pulls together site-specific soil data characteristics to ensure individuals, professions, and industries find success,” Struben adds. Data in WSS is a product of the National Cooperative Soil Survey, a joint effort of USDA’s NRCS and other Federal agencies, State agencies, and other partners.

NRCS continues to promote use of the WSS tool, deemed successful and valuable because using WSS’ web tool is fast and easy. “You define the site or location in question, access soil data to select properties to investigate, run a report of the findings, and then print or download the report,” says Struben.

With the WSS, users access data about physical and chemical soil properties. They then correlate those properties with map data to determine how well suited (or poorly suited) a site is for a particular land use or project.

“Think about it—soil properties, strengths and weaknesses—are key to the success or the failure of nearly every project,” says Bill Gradle, State Conservationist for NRCS. “Whether it’s a new house with a basement, a tree planting project, or the development of a new business strip mall. Soils on the site can make it or break it.”

First launched in August 2005, WSS is used thousands of times daily by engineers, planners, builders and scientists. Interpretations and recommendations generated from soil data are ideal for anyone deciding where or how to dig. Current WSS soil data is available for every Illinois county, rural or urban, and for more than 90% of counties across the nation. 

“Of all the layers users download to create maps or whatever digital image or GPS scenario you need, make sure your base layer includes the soil. Why? Because that’s what you’re building on to or in to. Soil should be considered first—it’s that important,” Struben adds.

USDA history confirms agricultural producers have used Soil Survey reports for nearly 100 years; they still use them today. WSS is the 21st Century version of those reports, offering priceless advice and data to landowners and others in search of wise and successful land use decisions.

WSS contains valuable digital data and allows users to query, sort, and correlate information with a quick and user-friendly online application. “And because WSS is a technical aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it is available free of charge and without commercials or advertisements,” says Gradle.

To visit or investigate soils involved in your next earth-moving project, visit today!