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Corn+Soybean Digest

The Blame Game | 2011 Floods Worsened Nutrient Load Sent to the Gulf


“It’s tough to convince someone in Minnesota that they need to do something to improve the water quality in the Gulf of Mexico.”

That profound statement from Bill Honker, from the Dallas EPA regional office, illustrates the critical need for multi-state cooperation in attempts to manage nutrient runoff that can cause hypoxia – or the dead zone.

With hypoxia, there’s too little oxygen to support most marine life in bottom and near-bottom water. It threatens valuable Gulf fisheries. And farmers are among those who contribute to hypoxia in the Gulf, EPA and others say.

Unwanted nutrients, including nitrates and phosphorus (P) from corn and soybean field runoff, flow from countless waterways bordering farming and urban regions.

 The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) says 41% of the nation’s drainage actually runs into the Mississippi to the Gulf. Scientists predict this year’s Gulf hypoxia could measure up to 8,700 square miles, nearly the size of New Jersey.

The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) says that during the monstrous May flooding, 164,000 metric tons of nitrates were transported into the Gulf. Stream-flow rates in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya (Louisiana) rivers were nearly twice normal, and 35% higher than the average the past 32 years, USGS says.

The Corps of Engineers purposely blew holes in river levees to reduce flooding in cities and towns, making hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, beans and other cropland instant lakes, with nutrients ready to rush away.

Honker says of the nitrogen (N) that flows into the Gulf, 66% comes from crops and 5% from livestock. About 43% of P comes from crops and 37% from livestock, he says.

“Our 2015 goal is to reduce the Gulf hypoxia to 5,000 square kilometers,” Honker says. “But we’re currently well over three times that goal.”

Did some of it flow from your field? Despite efforts to prevent runoff and use minimal amounts of N and P, weather played havoc on much conservation farming. “There’s only so much we can do until it’s in the good Lord’s hands,” says Jim Andrew, a Jefferson, IA, grower who’s been 100% no-till since 1993 and had an extensive terracing and tile program for nearly 40 years.

Andrew, director for the Iowa Soybean Association, works cooperatively with NRCS and EPA programs in the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI). It’s a 13-state program to improve water quality, improve wildlife habitat, restore and protect wetlands and maintain agricultural productivity in the river basin. Along with Iowa, other MRBI states are Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Andrew considers himself a lifelong conservationist. He no-tills bean seed into cornstalks. His corn never sees more than 100 lbs./acre of N applied. “I still manage to produce 150-175-bu. corn because of the excellent residual N our soil maintains from previous soybean crops,” Andrew says.

“I’m not interested in maximum yields, just the bottom line. And our no-till program helps us hold down costs as well as supporting the local and regional environment,” he says.

The MRBI is an NRCS priority initiative, due to water-quality concerns caused by “nutrient loading on the health of local water bodies and the Gulf,” says Tom Christensen, NRCS regional conservationist in Washington, D.C.  He oversees its central region, which includes 15 states.

Through its EQIP and other programs, NRCS and other federal and state agencies help farmers and ranchers like Andrew obtain optimum use of N and P in their fields and pastures and minimize runoff.

In 2010, more than $24.7 million in EQIP funds were provided for some 630 land-user contracts in the MRBI region. Overall, NRCS assistance through the initiative amounted to $32.8 million within the region. But with the federal budget tightening, there’s no guarantee funds will always be available, says Christensen.

Andrew, who has used EQIP and other NRCS resources in the past, says growers should use conservation efforts without being paid by the government. “I’m a firm believer that if we need to do something to conserve nutrients and prevent runoff, we dig into our own pockets,” he says.

For years Andrew has maintained field strip tests on 240 acres. He compares yields from 100 to 125 lbs. N/acre.

Matt Helmers, Iowa State University (ISU) Extension ag engineer, has researched BMPs and conservation practices to help reduce nutrient runoff.

He says that in studies by ISU and other universities (see sidebar), reducing N rates can be more cost-effective than other in-field N-management practices for reducing nitrate N in drainage water. But it depends greatly on the overall application rate and impacts on crop yield.

Whether it’s a cover crop system in Indiana or a cornstalk evaluation in Minnesota, MRBI programs incorporate those BMPs and other measures to help growers in states up and down the Mississippi and other watersheds enhance their N and P usage and reduce runoff that can eventually enlarge the dead zone.

Andrew fears if farmers don’t take steps to voluntarily reduce nutrient runoff, the government may do it for them in attempts to reduce hypoxia. “We need to get a head start and do what we can – or we will be regulated.”

(For more on the MRBI initiative, go to



BMPs should save you money

      Conservation practices or BMPs can save you from 10¢/lb. in total nitrogen (N) used for contour farming to over $2/lb. for combining no-till with the use of buffers and vegetative filters, based on a recent publication, “Cost Effective Water Quality Projection.”

 The publication was co-authored by crop scientists from University of Nebraska, Kansas State University, University of Missouri, Iowa State University, USDA and the EPA. It recommends: no-till farming, contour farming, strip-tilling, terraces and vegetative outlets, drainage-water management, nutrient-removal wetlands, buffers and filters with conventionaltillage, buffers and filters with no-till and annual cover crops.

All will help reduce loss of sediment, N and phosphorus (P), says Matt Helmers, Iowa State University (ISU) assistant professor and Extension agricultural engineer and publication co-author.

The initial study shows that N cost savings vary for each BMP. A no-till operation alone will save about 38¢/lb. in total N reduced. However, reduced N rates still top the cost-savings ratio.

By reducing the N rate from 125 lbs./acre to 85 lbs., there would be a 17% cost reduction, the study shows. That compares to a 15% reduction by avoiding a fall N application, and 14% if a nitrification inhibitor is used with a fall N application.


TAGS: Conservation
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