The Big and Small of Nutrient Management

James Banahan

James Banahan

While I spent part of last week in sunny Mexico, it wasn’t all fun and games.

So, okay—a lot of it was fun and games, but not all.

Truthfully, we did some serious business there too and covered some heavy topics.  The keynote speaker addressed the topic of global food need and the potential for a global food shortage.  To continue to feed our growing population, growers worldwide will need to double production by 2030, and then double it again by 2050.  That’s a staggering demand and reaching it will require all the tricks any of us have up our sleeves.

To get there, we can plant more acres.  Kind of.  The problem with this solution is land—we aren’t making anymore of it.  We simply don’t have enough acres to meet this demand.  We can also turn to biotechnology and increase the share of GMO crops worldwide.  That solution is projected to net us 1-2% growth in production each year, which is great but which doesn’t keep up with population growth.  Which brings us to a third solution: producing more on the land we have through improvements in our nutrient management.

As I write, its 75 degrees outside and the sun is shining.  Producers have been bringing in acres to be run like clockwork today.  Each acre has its own crop intentions and yield goal.  The one unifying factor across them is Nitrogen, and the lack of protection we provide for it.

Last year in the state of Nebraska, only 15% of the Nitrogen put down was treated with some form of a Nitrogen loss product.  In the United States alone, anywhere from 25-40 million acres of Nitrogen applications are lost each year.  While Nitrogen plays such a key role in our successful production, we do a pretty poor job overall of protecting it, and that’s something we need to improve upon for the good of the world.  Or if that doesn’t trip your trigger, then for the good of the environment.  Or if that doesn’t trip your trigger, then for the good of your pocketbook, because Nitrogen is certainly an investment, isn’t it?

I think that we sometimes tend to write off calls to protect our soil as coming from some tree-hugging dirt-worshippers who don’t represent us or have our good at heart.  And sure, maybe their motivation comes from a different place—their message though is spot on.  Nutrient efficiency is here to stay, from the mandates of the government to the exposes of lefty activists to the expectations of your neighbor’s kids, the world is asking us to be good stewards of precious nutrients and we need to respond.

Maybe one day, our response will be obligatory. The city of Des Moines, for example, is currently suing three area counties for nitrate issues in their drinking water.  Right now though, our response is voluntary, but that’s all the more reason to act.  Especially because responding to the call is really pretty easy and is good business for our operations.  As I see it, there are three relatively simple and cost-effective things we can do:

1) Use a stabilizer/enhancer product to protect your Nitrogen investment.

2) Retire the one shot Nitrogen application.  We don’t do it on wheat and we’d benefit from following suit with our corn and milo.

3) Sidedress.  (I know—this is kind of 2b, but it’s my article, darn it!)  For those of you lucky enough to have irrigation, it’s a simple operation.  For those of you in dryland, it will cost you another application charge, but it could return to you $20 per acre, or more.

The issue of nutrient efficiency impacts us at all levels, small and big, local and worldwide.  Improving our nutrient management has implications for things as everyday and familiar to us as a glass of water to things as foreign and overwhelming as famine and hunger.  And—bonus—whatever we do to improve our management comes back to us not only as a warm, fuzzy feeling in our hearts, but as cold, hard cash in our wallets.