By Karen Chapman, Great Lakes Regional Director at Environmental Defense Fund
Farmers have to watch every penny in order to remain profitable – now more than ever. Even with rosy crop prices, producers cannot afford to waste fertilizer or fuel. The January 3rd on-line bulletin “Crop Input and Land Outlook 2011” from OSU Extension, points out that, “Fertilizer continues to be the most volatile of the crop input costs and cost management of this important input may be the difference in being a low cost or high cost producer in 2011.”
With nitrogen and phosphorus prices both up at least 50% from a year ago, it’s hard to imagine why any farmer would apply fertilizer only to see it flow off the field. However, many farmers — some probably unknowingly — do just that.
It’s time to stop this practice, to protect both the pocketbook and soil and water health.
The best way to ensure that soil is healthy and nutrients are there for the new crop in the spring is to take care of the soil year-round and manage nutrients for maximum efficiency. A broadcast application where you run the risk of half the applied fertilizer running off the field when the snow melts or the rain falls is not careful management.
There are methods available to improve soil health now: minimum tillage (which also avoids compaction), managed residue, cover crops, and precision nutrient management. Many of these practices are cost-shared through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), to encourage adoption. But any farmer can also practice good stewardship through avoidance — the “No on Snow” (and frozen ground) rule.
Where does the fertilizer or manure that is applied on frozen ground go? It all depends on weather and how much moisture is in the soil. The right conditions rarely favor frozen ground applications. A very gradual cycle of thawing and freezing, where soils have good structure and are not already saturated, might encourage infiltration, but where soils are saturated and snow melt occurs on top of saturated soils, the sponge won’t work, and fertilizer moves right off the field and into the ditch, so even with very little slope you’ve just lost significant amounts of that $700-per-ton fertilizer.
The OSU C.O.R.N. (Crop Observation and Recommendation Network) bulletin twice last winter warned producers against applying fertilizer on frozen ground in both the January and February 2010 posts. Quoting from the bulletin: “When soils are saturated and frozen, there is no water infiltration. If a major thaw event occurs (especially with deeper snow), any materials applied as a surface application have the potential to be transported off-site (i.e. lost from the field).”
The Ohio Department of Agriculture, through their Livestock Environmental Permitting Program, also discourages manure applications on frozen ground for permitted farms, and issues strict guidelines for livestock managers if applications must be made. These include guidance on setbacks, application rates, and field cover. In addition, they require that their department be notified prior to the manure application on frozen ground.
If this still doesn’t convince you to avoid winter fertilizer applications, consider this: in many states — including Ohio — agriculture is facing ever-greater scrutiny by the public and regulators looking to once and for all resolve water quality problems they believe stem from these types of agriculture practices.
Some states are already taking action. For example, the Minnesota legislature will soon review a plan from the University of Minnesota to clean up water in the state within 25 years, and the recommendations include a provision to create rules requiring that agriculture comply with water quality emissions standards. The state of Florida now has federally-imposed language requiring them to set numeric criteria for how much phosphorus and nitrogen can enter all water bodies in the state, which will also impact agriculture.
Not all standards are forced through lawsuits or federal intervention. Last summer the state of Wisconsin proposed new rules that would establish numeric standards for phosphorus — including non-point sources of phosphorus — or phosphorus where the source is difficult to pinpoint, as in agriculture and septic systems. These rules were established with input from numerous agricultural organizations, including the state’s pork, dairy and cattle associations.
And in Ohio, the Department of Natural Resources has proposed designating Grand Lake St. Mary’s a “distressed watershed” after it was closed last summer to all recreation due to toxic algal blooms. Rules for distressed watersheds would restrict winter manure applications between December 15 and March 1. Other organizations are pushing the state to also adopt criteria for nutrients in Lake Erie, and Ohio EPA has proposed a new package of rules that would set nutrient criteria for all inland lakes in the state.
There are many other unregulated avenues for phosphorus and nitrogen to enter our waterways — including failed septic systems, lawncare fertilizers, and sewage overflows. And for those who want regulations for agriculture, the difficulty of enforcement is often overlooked. But we all need to take responsibility for the ways we contribute to the problem — with or without regulations. A fertilizer rig on snow in the wintertime is visibly hard to miss, and taking responsibility might include talking to your neighbor about his practices.
The majority of Ohio farmers are excellent stewards and businesspeople. Let’s keep it that way by improving management practices when new information points us in that direction. Remember, as farmers you are paying for an expensive input. Why would you want to see your hard earned dollars leave the field where the crop can’t utilize it?