To the general public, ag retailers might seem like unlikely advocates for nutrient stewardship. After all, they make money selling fertilizers. However, retailers participating in the voluntary 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program are dedicated to helping their farmer-customers protect water quality by applying crop nutrients responsibly.
Chris Horning, assistant manager for Sunrise Cooperative’s Precision Solutions Team, explains that as a cooperative, Sunrise works for its farmer-owners: “We have to do what’s right for them.” Applying fertilizers in ways that allow nutrients to run off fields would be a waste of the nutrients and the money farmers spend on them, he adds. “It would be like driving around with a hole in your gas tank.”
The 4R Certification Program was started in 2014 by the Nutrient Stewardship Council, which includes representatives from universities, businesses, government agencies, and agricultural and environmental organizations. The program is voluntary for nutrient retailers and service providers, but participants are required to keep additional records for program verification and pay for annual third-party audits. The program requires participating companies to meet 41 criteria that were phased in over three years. Those criteria include requirements for training and education of staff and customers, as well as the use of 4R recommendations for applying the right source of nutrients at the right rate, time and place. The Ohio AgriBusiness Association takes care of administering the program.
Currently, 47 Ohio retailers and nutrient service providers are participating in the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program. There are also four participating facilities in Michigan and one in Indiana. The participating companies are serving about 7,000 farmer-clients and working on nutrient management or application on 3.1 million acres of farmland.
Sunrise Cooperative was among the first Ohio fertilizer retailers to sign up for the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program and the cooperative was certified for the fourth year last fall. Craig Houin, innovation and R7 lead for Sunrise, says participating in the program helps show nonfarmers that the ag community is working on water quality issues. The 4R’s are nothing new, he adds. The nutrient management recommendations are basic agronomy — and they are also good business, because farmers are only spending money on the inputs that are needed.
What is new is the ever-improving technology available to help farmers manage nutrients, Houin explains. For instance, farmers and nutrient suppliers have been using grid soil sampling and variable-rate nutrient applications for years, but application equipment has become more precise. The software to collect and manage data is constantly improving as well, allowing farmers to gain new insights. It’s also becoming easier to layer data on various aspects of production. “Software providers understand the need to integrate different platforms,” Houin explains. He encourages farmers to collect data, even if they don’t have a way to use them right now, because they may eventually be useful. For instance, data on soil moisture, weather, nutrient levels and yields could help build crop models to guide in-season nitrogen applications.
Gene Cook, who produces corn and soybeans in northern Seneca County, is working with Sunrise Cooperative to manage his nutrients. He likes the idea of voluntary efforts to improve nutrient management. “We’d rather change ourselves than have other people tell us how to do it,” he explains. On his own fields, following the 4R’s is helping bring down soil test levels of phosphorus, while still providing crops the nutrients they need. Over the last three years, less than 10% of his cropland has required an application of phosphorus. “The levels have dropped from three years ago,” he says. “It’s definitely working.”
Cook began using no-till 20 years ago. More recently, he’s participated in Environmental Quality Incentive Programs (EQIP) to improve nutrient management, install drainage control structures and plant cover crops. To address water quality concerns, farmers need to be willing to try new practices, and there are cost-share and educational programs available to help them, he says. “There’s options out there for guys to experiment with.”
Roy Michael, who farms just north of Green Springs in Sandusky County, Ohio, is also working with Sunrise Cooperative to manage nutrients on his 730 acres of crop ground. He has been using grid soil sampling and variable-rate application since 2008, and he uses no-till on nearly all his land. He also tries to establish a cereal rye cover crop on all his ground every fall. Those practices combine to help keep nutrients from flowing off his ground. “The cover crops and 4R’s work pretty nice together,” he says.
Michael sees the 4R program as part of the responsible approach needed to address water quality issues. However, the program alone won’t solve water quality problems, he adds. “There’s more to learn and more technology needed.”
While 4R Certification started as a way to address water quality problems in the Western Lake Erie Basin, concerns about water quality aren’t limited to that area. Retailers outside the Lake Erie watershed also see the need to protect water quality with responsible management of nutrients. One of the participants based in the Ohio River watershed is Tyler Grain and Fertilizer, which serves producers in Wayne County and the edges of neighboring counties. “We’re not even in the Lake Erie watershed, but four years ago we made the decision to participate,” says Nick Franks, general manager for Tyler Grain and Fertilizer.
The land Tyler Grain and Fertilizer works with is different from what many other 4R-certified retailers manage. Because the area has so many small farms and dairies, Tyler works with smaller fields, averaging about 3 acres. The terrain also gives them lots of wooded areas and valleys to work around. “We’ve got to watch all those sensitive areas,” explains Franks.
Following the 4R principles for nutrient management doesn’t necessarily mean reducing applications, Franks points out. Instead, it means properly applying nutrients where they are needed. For instance, without soil testing, a farmer might assume land near livestock barns would not need phosphorus because of a history of manure application. However, soil testing is the only way to determine nutrient levels, Franks explains. “In multiple cases, we found we needed to put more nutrients on the ground.”
Tyler Grain is a sixth-generation family business that started in 1860. It’s continuing to grow by keeping up with changes in farming practices and technology. Participating in the 4R program helps Tyler Grain build awareness of the need for soil testing and nutrient management with customers, says Franks. The business did need to reorganize its paperwork to meet audit requirements, but it was following 4R nutrient management practices all along, he adds. “Really it’s just a checkmark of what we already do.”
Identifying 4R barriers
Ohio State University survey data from farmers in Ohio’s Maumee and Sandusky River watersheds show gaps between good intentions and adoption of some nutrient management practices. Looking at the reasons for those gaps may help in development of programs to help farmers close those gaps.
For some practices, such as soil testing and avoiding application before rainstorms, OSU researchers conducting the surveys found a consistently high pattern of adoption. Farmers who said they intended to use the practices almost always followed through. But for other practices, such as planting cover crops or using subsurface nutrient application, the follow-through fell far short of intentions, explains Robyn Wilson, an associate professor with OSU’s School of Environmental and Natural Resources. “You have a bunch of people who say they’re interested in doing it — so why aren’t they doing it?”
In some cases, the barrier to adoption is information. For instance, farmers might not carry through with their intentions to plant cover crops because they don’t know how to manage the cover crops. In other cases, a lack of the necessary equipment or time constraints might keep farmers from adopting a practice such as subsurface nutrient application. Another barrier is doubt about whether a particular practice will be effective. Some practices, Wilson notes, are more practical and cost-effective for farmers than others. “You have to find that line between good excuses and bad excuses.”
The surveys also showed some farmers gave up on cover crops and subsurface application at about the same rate that other farmers adopted them. Unfortunately, Wilson says, that resulted in no net increase in the use of those practices from 2016 to 2018 in the survey group. “New people were adding those practices to their portfolios, but similar numbers of people were dropping those practices.”
In the case of cover crops, she speculates that farmers might be dropping them because funding to promote the cover crops ended before the benefits could be realized. “There’s a big misalignment in funds for cover crops,” she says. Most cost-share programs offer assistance for three years, but it can take 10 years before farmers see financial benefits. So, some farmers might find it hard to stick with cover crops, especially when margins are tight.
The reason for the abandonment of subsurface application may be related to weather challenges that sometimes make it difficult for farmers to use subsurface application, even though they have in the past, Wilson suggests. The good news from the surveys is the potential for higher adoption rates of cover crops and subsurface application, if barriers can be overcome, Wilson adds.
The surveys, funded by the 4R Research Fund, were conducted in 2016 and 2018. In 2016, 689 farmers completed the survey; two years later, the same group was asked to complete a second survey. In the second round, 381 surveys were completed.
Additional information on the surveys and other 4R research projects is available at 4rcertified.org/research.
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.