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On-farm runoff numbers in conflict with popular opinion

Environmental activist groups would have us believe farmers are sending a steady stream of nitrogen fertilizer down the Mississippi River and into the hypoxia zone in the Gulf of Mexico. That's what they claim over and over again in their fundraising emails.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas and producers like Steve Stevens, who groiws cotton, corn and soybeans near Dumas in southeast Arkansas, are finding the amount of fertilizer runoff is a very small fraction - as little as 1 percent - of the amount of fertilizer being applied.

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That's the number Stevens used in a presentation about research on his operation, which has been designated a Discovery Farm, during the annual National Conservation Systems Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica, Miss. The event is held in conjunction with the Southern Corn and Soybean Conference and the Southern Precision Ag Conference.

Some of the credit for the reduction goes to applying most of his fertilizer after crop emergence when the crop actually needs nutrients the most. "What we're finding is our nitrogen is about 1 percent runoff with 99 percent utilization by the crop," says Stevens. "we're about 3 percent to 5 percent on our phosphorus with 95 percent to 97 percent utilization. Very, very small numbers, very good on the environment."

Using the PHAUCET program for irrigation is also making a difference. "We have reduced the water we pump by 40 percent, and I think that smaller amount of runoff is contributing to keeping it in the field."

For more information on PHAUCET, go to

With nitrogen costs approaching $600 a ton, Stevens says producers simply can't afford to allow large amounts to flow into the streams around Dumas and into the Mississippi River. That works out to about $30 an acre for cotton and more than $100 an acre for corn on his operation.

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