Farmers gather to learn the latest on nutrient management

by Jonathan Eisenthal

Last Tuesday, farm conservation experts–commercial farm producers and the service providers who help them succeed–sounded an optimistic note about the future of weaving together profitable agricultural production and environmentally sound conservation practices. It’s a trend that’s already well underway, an audience of several hundred farmers and crop consultants were told at the fifth annual Nutrient Efficiency and Management Conference in Rochester.

The most well subscribed portion of a packed agenda was the panel discussion, which featured two agronomists, a crop consultant and a dairy farmer.

Ron Durst of Durst Brothers Dairy described the operation he and his two brothers run in Mantorville, where they milk 1,500 dairy cows, grow the crops that feed the dairy cattle and raise a herd to provide all the replacement cattle they need.

Jon Schmitz said his current work with dairy producers on systems to store and utilize manure has him quite optimistic about the future of improved water quality. A native of Sleepy Eye, Schmitz worked for a decade for Christensen Farms–one of the largest hog operations in the United States, and now works as an agronomist for Progressive Ag Center LLC, where he provides nutrient management planning for dairy and swine operations.

Schmitz said, “I’m a tech service provider for NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and I think that if the government continues to fund projects, like the manure storage facilities that help producers plan and build, then I think water quality in southeast Minnesota is only going to improve. Meeting with growers and educating them about the availability of nutrients in manure, the (nitrogen) credits for legumes (like Alfalfa) has benefitted water quality and it will continue to improve water quality.”

Targeting manure application by following what is revealed in soil tests and grid mapping shows immediate results, according to a review by experts from Minnesota and Wisconsin Discovery Farms projects. Another key piece of information has flowed from the Discovery Farm’s practice of measure runoff year-round. They have discovered that about two thirds of the manure related nutrients that are lost from fields are lost from frozen ground, in the months of February and March. The experts are quite optimistic about using this kind of information to develop best management practices that will keep more nutrients on the crop land, where they can do some good.

Panelist Chris Soltau said he is concerned about nitrates in drinking water in southeastern, Minnesota. As a resident of Goodhue County, and an agronomist with Ag Partners Coop, Soltau is proud of the work he does, selling farmers the inputs they need to successful raise crops but he wants to promote the best possible methods to prevent as much nitrogen loss as possible. When asked about what he hopes for in future research, Soltau said continued and expanded research on nitrogen best management practices. He believes the more real-world, on-farm results farmers see, the more confidence they will have in University-published BMPs. In turn, this will lead to broader use of techniques like targeted application, the correct nutrient credit for various crop rotations, among others.

The right balance of manure and commercial fertilizer is the next step in a series of steps which have allowed Minnesota corn producers to increase their yield by 38 percent in the last two decades while reducing the amount of nitrogen per bushel of corn down to 0.8 pounds per bushel. During the panel discussion, Crop Consultant Lynn Lagerstedt of Farm-Tech Crop/GPS Services in Adams said one current trend is spreading a light volume of manure over a wider area, to bring potassium and phosphorous levels to the recommended level, and then to make up for the nitrogen deficit inherent in this lower volume of manure by supplementing with commercial fertilizer. The soil profile improves from adding organic matter, while the additional N ensures the crop yield will be optimal.

Durst said that nutrient management pays off. Across Minnesota, many corn producers had banner years, but Durst believes attentive nutrient management contributed to their yield average of 200 bushels per acre.

MCR&PC district representative David Ward, who raises hogs in addition to corn and soybeans found a lot to like in the presentations about the work of Discovery Farms, a project jointly underwritten by Minnesota’s corn, soybeans and turkey grower organizations.

“As regulations and best management practices develop we just need to make sure they are realistic, and flexible, while still creating water quality benefits–that’s what will give us the best chance to ensure that producers can really use them,” said Ward.

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