Mark Schleusener nutrient loss reduction

USDA state statistician Mark Schleusener speaks with an attendee at an update meeting about nutrient loss reduction efforts in Illinois Feb. 13. The results from 2013 to 2017 show the level of phosphorus loss up 26% and nitrate loss up 7%.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Clark County farmer Don Guinnip was disappointed but not discouraged upon hearing that the efforts of farmers, commodity groups and supporting agencies have not been as successful in reducing agricultural nutrient losses as they had hoped.

In fact, the results went in the opposite direction, a University of Illinois watershed expert said at an update meeting about nutrient loss reduction efforts Feb. 13 here.

“We’re still going in the wrong direction,” said Guinnip, who farms near the Wabash River in southern Illinois and is the Illinois Corn Growers Association’s representative on the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council (NREC).

However, data has been accumulated and efforts continue, he said. He was encouraged by a number of ongoing research projects outlined at the event.

Some of the things that people thought were fact for years, including how phosphorus moves, have been proven wrong. So new management techniques are being developed, Guinnip said at the NREC Investment Insight Live event.

The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS), first released in 2015, guides state efforts to improve water quality at home and downstream by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels in lakes, streams and rivers. It’s part of a broader effort being implemented by states in the Mississippi River Basin to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the Gulf of Mexico, which causes a “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted water.

The interim goals of the NLRS are nitrogen loss reduction by 15% and a 25% reduction in phosphorus discharges by 2025. The strategy’s ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in Illinois waterways by 45% overall, said Jennifer Woodyard, one of two University of Illinois Extension watershed coordinators in the state.

Since 2011, the point sources in urban areas have been reducing phosphorus. In Chicagoland there has been a 24% reduction of phosphorus discharge because of regulations on wastewater treatment.

“They are making progress. Now we need to do more in the rest of the state,” Woodyard said, noting agricultural areas in contrast are going backwards.

The baseline for comparison of nitrogen and phosphorus losses was established from 1980 to 1996. The results from 2013 to 2017 shows that in Illinois, the level of phosphorus loss is up 26% and level of nitrate loss is up 7%.

“It is the opposite direction of our goal,” she said.

Part of the explanation is that there has been a 13% increase in water flow during that period, Woodyard said. Also there may be a delay in seeing the immediate impact of best management practices, including reduced tillage and cover crops, she said.

However, she said the goal is to keep agricultural practices voluntary.

The NREC, which was created by state statute in 2012, is funded by a 75-cent per ton assessment on bulk fertilizer sold in Illinois to provide financial support for nutrient research and education programs. These projects aim to ensure the discovery and adoption of practices that address environmental concerns, optimize nutrient use efficiency and ensure soil fertility.

The issues of nitrate loss is not a matter of farmers over-applying nitrogen, said Lowell Gentry, University of Illinois Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences researcher. Natural mineralization adds to nitrates in the soil and the water, he said.

Cover crops may be the best strategy in reducing nutrient loss, Gentry said.

Some farmers have been successful with cover crops, but many have not, and hearing about the challenges has discouraged farmers from trying them, Woodyard said.

Some research findings surprised fellow farmer Dean Campbell, who farms in Randolph County in southern Illinois.

“That there’s nitrogen loss after soybeans is not expected,” said Campbell, who farms near Coulterville.

Some projects are in early stages, including the work of Jon Schoonover at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, who is looking at what impact water and sediment control basins can have. Work being done in Menard County will provide some information about the cost effectiveness and environmental impact of these projects, he said.

However, with only one year’s research on the control basins, it is too early to make conclusions, he said.

Both benefits to the environment and profitability for farmers are key factors in the NREC-funded projects. Andrew Margenot of the University of Illinois said research is looking into making use of phosphorus from point sources, such as urban areas and factories, that would be distributed as fertilizer on fields. Margenot calls this possibility a “triple win.”

What farmers want

Watershed-based planning has a role in reducing nutrient losses, said Jennifer Woodyard, one of two University of Illinois Extension watershed coordinators in the state. She is based in the Embarrass River Watershed that covers 1.5 million acres, including Champaign County in east central Illinois.

Efforts are being made to update the 2011 Embarrass watershed plan, which expires next year.

The planning includes meeting with farmers informally and hearing about the tools they are using and what need, Woodyard said.

“At these nine meetings, the consistent message is that farmers need some cost-share options, and assistance in making the best plans for their farms,” she said.

The farmers also request more education opportunities for landlords so they can understand the need and the cost of conservation practices.

“Local research is required,” Woodyard said.

Farmers need to know some of the lessons their neighbors learned about what conservation practices are successful in their areas, she said.

Educational opportunities are growing, with new trainings offered this spring. Advanced soil health training programs, created by American Farmland Trust to train the trainers, will be offered in June in both Illinois and Iowa, she said.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.