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CIBO Certified Crop Advisor Pathway:

How to Avoid Nutrient Planning Pitfalls


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Anne Fairfield-sonn

Source: How to Avoid Nutrient Planning Pitfalls

Understanding your nutrient goals will keep you inside the Sustainable Triangle

The natural environment — weather. The physical environment — soil type, topography and conditions in each field. The human environment — your and your landlords’ preferences and desires, financial resources, equipment, manpower and more, including government requirements. Farm where all three environments overlap, a sort of balancing act, and you’ll be sustainable and profitable.

That last human factor, government, is a big one, especially in light of soil health and the 4Rs (right product, right rate, right time, right place). You’ve read articles, and probably attended meetings, about both.

Very likely, those articles and events addressed incentive programs for your area or even regulations.

Soil health and nutrient management programs are part of farming nowadays, and you must blend them into your sustainable triangle. Consulting with farmers in various states has given Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie some insights that could help.


Presenters from government and environmental organizations describe soil health and nutrient reduction as win-win opportunities for farmers and the environment — and they can be, Ferrie says.

“Following a 4R plan is essential,” he says. “Fertilizer is too expensive to waste, and nutrient escapes must be curbed. Cover crops and practices such as reduced tillage reduce erosion.

“The speakers suggest these management plans will result in higher yield, lower cost and higher return on investment for farmers,” Ferrie continues. “But water quality is the real motivation for implementing soil health and 4R nutrient incentive programs, as well as regulations.”

Pollution remains an issue because, while farmers apply fewer nutrients per acre than ever before, they also grow more acres of crops to meet the demand of steadily increasing population, Ferrie says. Many states have set a goal of reducing phosphorus losses by 25% and nitrogen losses by 15% by 2025. The ultimate goal is to reduce both by 45%.


While soil health and nutrient management are good, problems can arise for farmers locked into incentive agreements they don’t understand if weather or economics turns against them. Last fall some farmers who wanted to shift to fall-applied anhydrous ammonia because of price and availability concerns discovered that was not allowed under their management plans, Ferrie says.

Deviating from a voluntary plan can cost incentive payments. Deviating from a regulatory plan can bring financial penalties or loss of government support programs.

You can avoid problems by understanding your Nutrient Management 590 Conservation Practice Job Sheet. Whether you operate under an incentive program or regulations, this form lays out the 4R nutrient management practices in your plan, based on soil test and yield data, on each tract you farm.

Before locking themselves into an agreement, farmers who use variable-rate technology (VRT) might need to consult their local Natural Resources Conservation Service staffs to try to work around some issues.

“My customers using VRT have up to 30 management zones in each field,” Ferrie says. “Each zone already has its own soil test-based nutrient management plan.”

But many 590 sheets are set up with only one line to enter all soil test values.

“This is an average of all soil tests taken in the field,” Ferrie says. “Applying one rate across the field does not fit well with VRT. Using average soil test values could mean a zone that needs phosphorus won’t receive it, and vice versa.”

The 590 job sheets vary somewhat in format. “The version used in the H2Ohio program would make a good standard for everyone,” he says. “It lets operators set yield goals and write plans by management zone, based on high-, medium- or low-testing soils.”


“Often growers think enrolling in a nutrient reduction program will mean easy money — just do some paperwork and get paid for following a management plan they already have,” Ferrie says. “Maybe so — but make sure you understand the rules. You don’t want to discover a devil lurking in the details when the weather goes against you and you need to call an audible at the line of scrimmage.”

Farmers have done their part to fight water  pollution by applying less fertilizer, Ferrie says.

“They have improved soil health by various measures,” he says. “But they now have been given a much bigger job to do in terms of feeding the world while improving water quality.”

Why Water Quality Issues Persist

The Clean Water Act, as we know it today, has been on the books since 1972. So why are more areas and communities dealing with algae blooms and high nitrate levels in drinking water now than in 1980? “The short answer is people,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie.

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Nutrient Standards Vary by State

With nutrient management plans becoming a part of many farm operations, growers who operate across state lines must be aware that standards for nutrient planning can differ, notes Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie.

“For example,” he says, “Illinois farmers follow standards in the Illinois Agronomy Handbook. Indiana, Ohio and Michigan farmers use the Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations Extension Bulletin. These publications differ on what is considered optimum nutrient levels, which nutrient extraction methods will be accepted from soil testing laboratories and how to collect soil samples for testing.”

To calculate the nitrogen (N) rate for corn, some states use yield goals, some use yield history and some use maximum return to N. These differences can cause N rate recommendations to vary by 50 lb. to 100 lb. per acre for the same yield goal.”

Uniform nutrient standards might make nutrient reduction strategies more effective, Ferrie suggests — as well as simplifying life for farmers and consultants.

Darrell Smith, who’s been with Farm Journal for 40-plus years, works alongside Ken Ferrie to break down the systems approach to farming. 

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