Farmers Need To Voluntarily Reduce Fertilizer Runoff

Farmers Need To Voluntarily Reduce Fertilizer Runoff

Iowa ag secretary implores farmers to voluntarily reduce nitrate and phosphorus loss from fields before EPA takes action.

Speaking at a session of the Iowa Farm Bureau annual meeting in Des Moines this week, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey told farmers that regulators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies are certain to seek mandatory actions on farms if landowners don't show they can reduce the amount of runoff pollution making its way into Iowa streams and rivers.

YOUR INPUT WANTED: Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey is urging Iowa farmers to read the recently released Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy report and comment on it.

Nitrate and phosphorus are ending up in the Gulf of Mexico, the home of the largest commercial fishing and shrimping industry in the United States, and government regulators are poised to force farmers in states like Iowa to change how they farm the land if farmers don't take action voluntarily to reduce the runoff.

Northey, a farmer himself as well as the top government agriculture official in Iowa, said, "If we don't address these issues ourselves, we should expect regulation." Northey noted that he and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Iowa Department of Natural Resources chief Chuck Gipp introduced the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at a press conference on November 19 at the state capitol in Des Moines. That report lays out the voluntary options for farmers to take on their farms to reduce the pollution.

Farmers need to figure out which conservation practices work best on their farm

"As farmers we want to be part of the solution by finding out how we can do a better job," said Northey. "We each need to find out what works best. I think using one or two of the best management practices for each farm will meet the goal that has been set for our state, which is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus runoff by 45%."

The varying geology and topography of the land, even in a state as big as Iowa, makes the kind of mandatory actions EPA has discussed for the Chesapeake Bay a bad idea to try to put to work in the Heartland of America, said Northey. "I believe now is the time for us as farmers to find the farming practices that work. This Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a voluntary plan and it is based on science. It will not work if we don't voluntarily put these practices on the land."


Farm pollution from fertilizer and manure is the source of 70% of the nitrate that is creating a large hypoxic area in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, entering from the mouth of the Mississippi River. The hypoxic or "dead zone" as it is called doesn't have enough oxygen to support aquatic life. Iowa and Illinois are two of the biggest sources of nitrate and phosphorus runoff.

Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy report discusses various pollution fighting methods

The Iowa nutrient reduction plan was put together over the past two years by the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and Iowa State University. EPA is requiring the 12 states in the Mississippi River basin to each develop a nutrient reduction strategy for their state. So far, only two states have released a strategy -- the state of Iowa and the state of Mississippi.

ISU scientists reviewed a number of studies and evaluated the pollution control effectiveness of management practices such as growing rye as a cover crop on fields after corn and soybeans are harvested in the fall. The cover crop holds soil in place and can also take up some of the nitrate and keep it from escaping from the field. The cover crop is then harvested or killed in the spring and the nitrogen is returned to the soil where it is again available for use by the spring-planted corn crop. Building more wetlands is another pollution reduction practice suggested in the report, as is establishing more buffer strips along streams throughout the state.

Splitting nitrogen fertilizer applications into two or three trips over the field at various times instead of making just one application is another possible practice, as is the establishment of biofilters that use buried woodchips to filter water coming from a field—such as from drainage tile. The buried woodchips break down nitrate. Another possible practice that could be used to help conserve soil and reduce pollution of lakes, streams and rivers is to convert the most highly erosive land to grass or hay production.

Goal is to cut Iowa's nutrient runoff into Mississippi River by 45% by 2015

Projects outlined in the Iowa plan are designed to meet the goal of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution entering the Mississippi River by 45% by 2015. That goal was set by a federal task force several years ago. Some of the pollution problems are caused by sewage from municipal sewage treatment plants and also from lawn fertilizer runoff, Northey noted. It's not all caused by agriculture. But agricultural runoff is responsible for 70% of the nitrate problem, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.


Also at the Farm Bureau meeting, as part of a panel discussion, Dean Lemke, the top water quality official at the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, said the state's nutrient reduction strategy is an opportunity for both urban and rural residents to work together to help solve water quality problems in the state. "We need to learn how to address these problems as a community of people rather than pointing fingers at each other," said Lemke. "We are all responsible for nutrients."

Lemke said it would be to Iowa's advantage to take the leadership role, among the 12 Mississippi River basin states, in addressing water quality issues related to growing crops and producing biofuels. "When you concentrate all that production in a state as small as Iowa, you also concentrate the environmental problems."

Farmers are encouraged to participate in public comment period by going online

The in-depth discussion forum on the 2012 Nutrient Management Strategy drew capacity crowds at the IFBF meeting. In addition to Northey and Lemke being part of the discussion panel, Iowa State University ag engineering professor Matt Helmers, a scientist who studies agricultural drainage and related issues, led the discussion and answered many questions from farmers. Helmers explained that the water quality plan provides several scenarios for conservation measures that would impact nutrient run-off in Iowa and farther down the Gulf. 

Northey concluded by emphasizing that a science-based voluntary approach to conservation works best with all farmers. "I do believe now is the time for us as farmers to find these practices that will work in their own operation and use them, to figure out how we each can do a better job," said Northey. "Again, let me emphasize that this is a voluntary, science-based plan, but it does not work if we don't put these practices to work on our farms. We want to tell the story that we are making progress. This strategy is a better alternative than a one size fits all regulation that limits choices."

Iowa farmers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the water quality plan and participate in the online public comment period by going to the nutrient reduction strategy website. The 45-day comment period ends January 4, 2013. You can read the report on the website and also leave your comments there.

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