By Brian Hefty –

As farmers, we are under attack right now from many non-farmers who are concerned that we may be polluting our land and water.  Our best and only real solution to this is to reduce the few problems we’ve got.

First of all, as Americans, we have the safest and most abundant food supply in the world.  That’s thanks to you, the American farmer.  Same thing for our water’s safe, it’s abundant, and overall we’re doing a good job keeping it that way.

However, we have one major issue when it comes to water quality – nitrate.  Last summer, Darren and I toured a few farms in Denmark.  Did you know that the Danish farmers are limited on how much nitrogen they can use on their farms?  It’s true, and it’s now adversely affecting their yield.  In addition to that, Danish farmers are required to turn in an extensive and complete report each year to the government about EVERYTHING they plan to do on the farm, from tillage to which crops they’ll plant to their herbicide and fertilizer plan and a whole lot more.  We have a copy of a 25-page report that a 400-acre farm had to turn in prior to being allowed to do anything on their farm in 2011.

If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up in the same position as the Danish farmers, so here’s what I’m asking you to do today – test your soil for cation exchange capacity (CEC).  What CEC tells you is the holding capacity of your soil.  What we commonly use it for is to determine approximately how much nitrogen a soil can hold.

For example, if you have a CEC of 15, multiply that number times 10 to get 150.  That means your soil can roughly hold 150 pounds of nitrogen at any one time.  So if you want to apply 200 pounds of nitrogen, you can certainly do it legally right now, but where do you think that excess N will go?  Chances are it will leach, meaning you lost nitrogen and wasted money, but even worse, there will likely be nitrate that ends up in someone’s water.

The drinking water standard for nitrate is 10 parts per million, so some nitrate in water doesn’t hurt humans, but higher levels are a problem, and that’s what we’re concerned about.  Here are my 4 requests for you:

  1. Know your cation exchange capacity in every single field.  It’s cheap and easy to test, and it doesn’t change much from year to year, so testing even once every 4 or 5 years is more than sufficient.
  2. Don’t overapply your nitrogen in any form, including manure.  If your soil can only hold 150 pounds of nitrogen, subtract the amount that your soil already contains and only apply the difference.
  3. If your crop needs more nitrogen, split-apply it.  Put some on at sidedress, foliar, or some other way once your crop has used some of the early-applied N.
  4. Use a nitrogen stabilizer like Nutrisphere-N.  Our studies have shown that nitrogen stabilizers help prevent loss and keep N in the ammonium (more stable) form longer.  However, nitrogen stabilizers are not miracle products.  If your soil can only hold 150 pounds of N, just because you add a nitrogen stabilizer doesn’t mean you can now apply 300 pounds of N safely.

In Denmark, it doesn’t matter now if a farmer wants to use a nitrogen stabilizer or split-apply nitrogen or use any other method to reduce nitrate in the water.  It’s too late.  The law is in place, and a farmer simply cannot use more nitrogen.  The same thing will happen here UNLESS we’re proactive, so please, BE PROACTIVE!