Through research, farmer hopes to find the ‘Goldilock’s rate’ of nitrogen fertilizer

Patsche-1370Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

Surrounded by the natural beauty of the Root River watershed in southeast Minnesota, farmer Wayne Dewall has always been conscious of conservation and land stewardship.

That’s why he jumped at the chance six years ago to take part in the innovative Root River Field To Stream Partnership. For six years now, the program has monitored the loss of soil and nutrients from farm fields. That data shows Dewall is losing an average of 51 pounds of nitrogen per acre each year — it’s a loss that the neither the natural environment nor Dewall’s wallet can afford.

With five years of data under his belt, Dewall feels like he has a greater understanding of how different weather patterns affect nutrient loss.

To really put that knowledge into action, Dwall decided to set up test plots on his land that should reveal the optimal rate of nitrogen to apply for his crops.

“You want to apply just enough so the plant has what it can make use of, and nothing extra that might get lost either in surface water or leach away into groundwater,” Dewall said.

To underwrite the necessary technical help and laboratory testing, Dewall applied for and receive a Conservation Innovation Grant from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA). The grants are funded through Minnesota’s corn check-off, which is entirely derived from farmers’ grain sales.

At age 52, this year will be Dewall’s 31st crop. He raises corn and soybeans in a 50-50 rotation.

“It’s always good to get an optimal fertilizer rate to maximize the economics of your farm,” Dewall said. “Up to now, I usually put on all my fertilizer before planting, but this research project will also look at split application: we’ll try 80 pounds before planting and then another 50 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer when the corn plants are growing — when the plants need the food — to see if that reduces nitrogen loss.”

Agronomists estimate that nitrogen flowing off farm fields or leaching away adds up to an economic loss of between $50-60 dollars per acre. Both Dewall and MCGA hope the research carried out on Dewall’s farm will be useful for many farmers to help cut down on the economic and environmental impact of nitrogen loss.

Be sure to check in the coming weeks for additional feature stories on Conservation Innovation Grant recipients. Click here to read a story on grant recipient Keith Hartmann. MCGA expects to announce another round of Conservation Innovation Grant funding this fall or winter.

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