Illinois Corn is a strong supporter of conservation practices to ensure that farms can remain sustainable for generations to come. Ted Mottaz is a Peoria County farmer who has taken charge of the future of his farm by implementing conservation practices.
Ted even uses his position as District 8 Director for the Illinois Corn Growers Association and his position on the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council to promote the use of best management practices through grassroots campaigns and meetings with government leaders. Beyond that, Ted serves as a model for his community and gatekeeper of information about conservation practices.
Let’s take a closer look at the main four methods Ted uses on his farm: reduced tillage practices, drainage water management, nutrient management, and soil nutrient testing.
Reduced Tillage Practices
The Mottaz family farm has used conservation tillage and no-till for a quarter of a century. Put simply, tillage is a way that farmers prepare land to grow crops (think about the classic image of the farmer with a horse-drawn plow. Instead, now, tillage machines and tractors do the work on a larger scale and more quickly). Tillage digs and stirs the soil to loosen it up and make it presumably easier to plant the crop. Yet, eliminating or decreasing the use of tillage prevents the likelihood of soil erosion, by which vital nutrients from last year’s crops are washed away. Additionally, reducing tillage helps protect water quality by reducing erosion. The remnants of the previous crop can provide nutrients and organic matter to the composition of the soil, improving its overall quality. Read up on some other benefits of conservation tillage.
Drainage Water Management
The Mottaz family uses drainage water management (DWM) to control the water on and below the surface of their farmland. Through an inexpensive structure using drainage pipes called tiles (think plumbing for farmland) and a simple control system, farmers can adjust how much water is on top of and within their farm’s soil. This system is beneficial in that it traps water to increase the yield (quantity and quality) of crops and maximizes the absorption of nutrients by the crop. As learned earlier, soil can retain many nutrients from last year’s crops as they slowly decompose. Also, the use of the nutrients by the crop decrease the risk of environmental impact by essentially “cleaning” the water of its nutrients before release. Learn more about DWM here.
Nutrient Management (The 4 R’s)
Since the 1960s, the Mottaz farm has applied nutrients such as nitrogen based on the 4R system. The “4 R’s” is a pretty well-known abbreviation for the 4R System of Nutrient Stewardship. It’s an easy way to remember the four major parts of nutrient management: Right Rate, Right Source, Right Time, Right Place. Essentially the 4Rs argue that applying nutrients (e.g. think fertilizer) must be done in a way that will allow the crop to use a sufficient amount of the provided nutrients without being wasteful or doing damage to the health of the soil or crop.
A comparable but more basic example would be watering a plant. Every plant has an ideal amount of water it needs based on factors like size and type of plant (Rate). There’s also a certain frequency at which it needs the water to be applied – It’s not ideal to water a plant again an hour after it was just watered (Time). Contaminated water or lemonade are not as effective as treated water (Source). It also doesn’t make sense to water just the leaves when we know nutrients are absorbed by the roots within the soil (Place). However, nutrient application for farmers needs to be more rigorous so that it protects the environment while increasing the health and yield of the crops and decreasing wasteful nutrient loss. Find out more about nutrient management here.
Soil Nutrient Testing
While the 4R system may give farmers an understanding of nutrient management’s importance, soil nutrient testing gives Ted a practical and effective way to determine if the 4Rs’s are being upheld. For instance, a farmer might apply a nutrient on Monday and on Tuesday morning, he or she might be met with an unexpected storm front that lasts until the following Monday. Soil nutrient testing after the storm system passes will give the farmer an idea whether enough of the nutrient remains to be sufficient for the crops or if a significant amount has been washed away and requires reapplication. This is an extremely basic example but it highlights why farmers need to test their soil. Testing helps make sure that farmers are not only being cost-effective but also minimizing the risk of over-saturating the soil which could negatively impact the environment and crops.
Ted’s elected conservation practices are just a few of the many choices available to a farmer. The Illinois Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP), in order to bolster the goal of the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, created an interactive conservation story map where Illinois farmers can advocate for conservation practices through storytelling. You can learn more about Ted’s story there and find out more about the numerous methods that farmers use to protect their land and, by extension, their neighbors and communities.