Illinois is smack in the middle of a huge “water quality” push.  What that means in non-farmer, non-agriculture terms is that the agricultural industry is working overtime right now to try to teach farmers how they can grow the same or better yields, using the same or less amount of fertilizer.  Using the same or less to grow the same or more equals less fertilizer running off the field into local streams.

It’s called efficiency and we strive to get better every single day.

  1. Don’t apply fertilizer if the soil temp is above 50 degrees.

anhyrous applicationThis has to sound confusing for a non-farmer because putting some fertilizer out on your garden, you surely pay little to no attention what the soil temperature is.  But farmers are applying anhydrous ammonia which injects nitrogen into the ground.  At a cooler temperature, the nitrogen is fixed in the soil and does not leach into the water or the air as easily.  This preserves water quality AND helps the farmer keep the valuable, expensive fertilizer he/she paid for.

2. Use soil tests to apply only the fertilizer you need, where you need it.

On-farm technology has come a long way.  Using GPS systems, farmers can now test their soil in various areas of the field, find out how much nitrogen already exists in each area to grow the next crop, and only apply the nitrogen that is needed in the areas it is needed.  Using this technology, farmers avoid over applying nitrogen (and having extra sitting in the soil that might leave via a heavy spring rain) and avoid paying for expensive fertilizer they don’t need in the first place.

3.  Plant cover crops.
cover crop demo
A group of farmers and educators stand in a winter ready field of cover crops.

In some regions, it makes sense for farmers to plant a crop that sits on the field through the winter to take up the nitrogen in the soil and hold it until the next crop (corn) grows enough to need it.

Cover crops are usually planted before the previous year’s crops are harvested.  They are allowed to grow and “take hold” in the fall before the winter weather kills them off.  These plants take up the leftover nitrogen in the soil and hold it all winter.  They also provide numerous other benefits for soil erosion, organic matter, and more.

In the spring, the farmer kills the cover crop and plants the primary crop.  As the primary crop grows, the cover crop decomposes and releases the needed nitrogen for the primary crop.  It’s a great system that provides so many conservation benefits!

Lindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Manager



The IL Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy was released last week.  It was a big deal for farmers.  But maybe (probably?) you have no idea what it is or what it means.  If so, this post is for you.

Farmers apply nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients to their fields to help crops grow and maximize yields.  This is pretty much like you applying Miracle-Gro to your potted houseplants or your garden, but on a huge scale.

water quality what your strategy

In a perfect world, farmers apply the nutrients, the plants grow enormously big, strong, and prolific because they are “eating” the nutrients, and everyone is happy.  But what happens when the nutrients are applied at the wrong time?  In the wrong amount?  Or the plants don’t grow and don’t use the nutrients like what happened to farmers during the drought?

In each of those cases, the nutrients are left in the field.  And when the spring rains come, the nutrients hitch a ride with the running water to the nearest ditch, then a creek, then a stream, a river, and end up exactly where we don’t want them.

This is bad for clean water, but also bad for farmers.  They paid for those nutrients (and nutrients are VERY expensive!) and they really want the plants to use them instead of watching them escape the field.

So the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy is basically exactly what it says – its a list of ways that farmers can help minimize nutrient loss from their fields.  The EPA has written the list, and now they leave it to ag associations and agribusiness to help farmers understand and implement the strategies on their own fields.

Of course, IL Corn is doing just that – along with Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Council on Best Management Practices, Illinois Pork Producers Association, GROWMARK, Syngenta, and others.

What are some of the things farmers are being asked to do?

1. Change the timing of their nitrogen applications.  It makes a lot of sense for farmers to apply nutrients when the plant needs them most to grow.  The problem is that equipment and availability doesn’t always make it possible for every farmer to apply their nitrogen at the exact same time of year … but we’re working on helping farmers through that.

2. Change the amount of nutrients they apply.  Farmers like this one because applying fewer nutrients means paying less money.  We’re encouraging farmers to do soil testing throughout their field, determine which areas of the field need a boost and which do not, and then apply nutrients only where needed.  New GPS technology helps with this and makes the process very efficient.

3. Grow cover crops.  We’ve figured out that for some farmers, applying nutrients in the fall, but also planting a crop that will grow a bit in the fall, hold the nitrogen within the plant through the winter, and then kill that crop before planting corn in the spring can work very well.  The techniques will be different for every farmer in Illinois because of our diverse weather from north to south.

These are just a couple of the options, but each can make a big difference for individual farmers and for the water supply!

Maybe hearing from a real farmer will help!  This is Garry Niemeyer, Illinois farmer, talking about what his conservation plan is for one of his fields near the Springfield watershed.

Do you have more questions about clean water, nutrient loss, or the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy?  I’d love to answer them!

Mitchell_LindsayLindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Manager



As reported in our water quality post last week, the issue of nutrient runoff and water quality is much bigger and more confusing than some people think.  In fact, there are researchers, policymakers, and vocal citizens throughout our nation and our world that believe that the issue can be cleared up with a few well-intentioned, though misguided policies.

We don’t believe that is the case.  And neither does the Illinois Director of Agriculture Bob Flider.

After the U.S. EPA wrote to offer their assistance to Illinois in dealing what they feel is a large agricultural problem, Director Flider returned their offer with an explanation of all the good work we are doing in Illinois to actually figure out the cause of the problem and correct agriculture’s portion.

He cited programs at the University of Illinois to assess the current extent of the problem.  He cited continued work on a strategy to help farmers correct any problem that might be uncovered in our research.  And he cited an extensive amount of programs with the agricultural industry to educate farmers about best management practices to reduce nutrient losses from farm fields.

Agriculture certainly cannot be called lazy as relates to this issue.  Our Keep it for the Crop 2025 program is helping.  The development of the Nutrient Research and Education Council is helping.  And farmers themselves are helping by changing their methods.

How can you be sure that farmers have pure motives to correct the quality of the water around them?  For one, farmers are drinking from wells located right in the middle of their fields.  They aren’t drinking city water that has undergone treatment.  They are just as motived to provide clean water for their families as you are.

And farmers are paying a premium for the nutrients they apply on their fields to help the crops grow.  If the plants aren’t using the nutrients and instead, the nutrients are lost in the water supply, that’s wasted money out of an already extremely tight budget.  Losing nutrients doesn’t make economic sense.

Next week we’ll dive into one such program that is really making a difference on the farms in terms of determining a nutrient loss problem and correcting it!

phil thorntonPhil Thornton
ICGA/ICMB Value Added Director


Every summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration measures and releases information about the size of the hypoxia zone* in the Gulf of Mexico.  Because of the drought in 2012, because all the nutrients that were applied went unused as the crops failed to grow, and because of the massive rainfall some of the Midwest experienced this spring, NOAA predicted the zone to be at least 20 percent larger in 2013.

2013 hypoxizWe were all surprised to hear that the zone is not nearly that large.  In fact, the zone is very nearly the average size.

This means that although some would like to believe that we have nutrient runoff and the causes of hypoxia zones down to an exact science, the fact that we can’t accurately predict a significant increase or decrease means that there’s a lot we still don’t know.

That is exactly why the Council on Best Management Practices, of which IL Corn and several other agri-business and associations are members, is working to build more science and more data regarding hypoxia and nutrient runoff.  Very little scientific data about agriculture’s contribution to the problem exists.

Plan to tune in every Tuesday this month on Corn Corps as we explore more about the water quality issues facing Illinois farmers and how farmers really are trying their best to manage and solve the problems facing those of us that drink water.

phil thorntonPhil Thornton
ICGA/ICMB Value Added Director

*Hypoxia zones are “dead zones” which are devoid of life.  This occurs because nutrients make their way into the water system, encourage the increasing growth of small microorganisms, and then deoxygenate the water as all these small organisms die and decompose.  As large sections of water become oxygen-free, fish and other wildlife can’t live causing fish die-offs and serious impacts on commercial and recreational fisheries. 

Many environmentalists would like to believe that agriculture is a substantial contributor to nutrient runoff and hypoxia zones.  However, to date, no solid research has been done on what agriculture’s contribution to this problem really is.  If agriculture has a significant impact, farmers are already poised to change their practices and do their best to minimize runoff.  If other industries are more at fault than currently assumed, everyone must step up to the plate to minimize nutrient runoff problems.


When it comes to water quality, Illinois Corn puts their money where their mouth is.

In recent years, farmers have come under fire as new, modern fertilizers and water drainage methods have been blamed for increased nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into the Gulf of Mexico.  The theory is that farmers are using more nitrogen on their fields instead of crop rotations and that this trend, coupled with a newer trend of tiling fields to improve water drainage, makes more fertilizer run into nearby creeks and waterways.  Eventually this water makes its way to the Mississippi River and then to the Gulf of Mexico where increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels kill fish and plants.

Because Illinois Corn and other Illinois farmer groups want to correct any amount of this problem that they are contributing to, we are investing in research to figure out first what the problems really are and second, how we fix them.  Our main project right now is the Indian Creek Watershed Project.

Indian Creek’s 82-square mile watershed (52,480 acres) drains north to the Vermilion River’s south fork, one of the USDA’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative focus areas.

The major resource concern for Indian Creek watershed is water quality, particularly nitrate levels.  With an average farm size of 500 acres, agriculture dominates the watershed – 95 percent of the land is tillable, most acres in a corn/soybean rotation, with several livestock operations.

The goal of the project is to determine what water quality changes occur when at least 50 percent of producers in a small watershed develop and implement comprehensive agriculture conservation systems.  As of December 2011, 37 percent of the watershed’s farmers were enrolled in programs to enhance their conservation agricultural systems.  Water quality parameters are recorded in-stream at five locations.

Using the in-stream monitoring and a growing number of farmer participants, we can determine a baseline for our nitrogen run-off into streams and whether or not our perceived solutions actually create meaningful reduction of nutrients in the water.

Other states have developed models to help farmers determine baseline data and improvement data on water quality control and conservation initiatives.  Illinois works with those states to figure out our next steps for research and implementation.

Although we don’t have any meaningful data yet to report, Illinois Corn and all Illinois farmers are excited to demonstrate their willingness to fix environmental concerns by implementing conservation practices on their own farms.  Not only is this about wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, but Illinois farmers are desperate to preserve water quality around their farmers, ensuring the livelihood of future generations on the family farm.

Phil Thornton
Value Enhanced Project Manager


Please join us for Water Quality Wednesdays in August as we celebrate Water Quality month!  Illinois corn farmers are committed to minimizing agriculture’s effect on water quality and this month, we’ll tell you how!

Illinois agriculture has been very involved in working to improve water quality.  In fact it has become a priority to change management, develop best management practices, and improve nutrient use efficiency.

In looking at the facts, agriculture has been very efficient in producing corn with less fertilizer use.  When looking at the amount of potassium applied per bushel, the farmers have reduced the amount by 56%.   Phosphorus has been considered a contributor to water quality problems by promoting algae growth and farmers have reduced the amount of phosphorus applied per bushel of corn raised by 55% in the last 30 years.

Nitrogen use is often mentioned as causing a problem with water quality in the Gulf of Mexico.  Farmers have also decreased their use of nitrogen per bushel of corn produced by 33% since the 1970’s.   Most of that reduction has been done in the last 15 years.   Better management of application with precision equipment and placement, precision guidance and better management practices all contribute to reducing nitrogen losses and improving the crop efficiency.

Fall applied nitrogen is now done with nitrogen inhibitors, and applied when soil temperatures are cool (50 degrees) so it remains stable in the soil until spring.   Many farmers are increasing their spring applied nitrogen acres and also starting to do nitrogen application after the crop emerges.  This also increases the nitrogen use efficiency in corn production, resulting in lower nitrogen application rates and lower costs of production.

Illinois farmers are continually working to develop new methods and best management practices by supporting demonstration trials and research across the state.   This commitment assures that nutrients will be used efficiently, the environment is protected and farmers can produce the most cost efficient crop for food and fuel.

Mike Plumer
Former U of I Extension Specialist and
Conservation Enthusiast


With all the talk about controlling nutrient losses, both from the urban and agricultural sector, sometimes the proposed solutions seem so easy:  for agriculture, just put on all your nitrogen in the spring, preferably by side-dressing after the corn has emerged.  After all, that is when the corn is already up and ready to take in the nitrogen immediately.

Seems easy, so why don’t we all do this?  There are many factors that impact nitrogen availability, price and capability to apply in a timely manner, particularly in Illinois.  Let’s list a few:

  1.  Illinois is an anhydrous ammonia state.  Our soils can hang on to nitrogen applied in the fall, particularly if applied when soil temps fall to 50 degrees and when nitrogen stabilizers are added.   70% of all nitrogen sold in Illinois for agricultural production is in the form of anhydrous and 55% of total nitrogen applied in Illinois is in the fall.  25% is liquid nitrogen (UAN), and the remaining 5% is dry urea, applied in the spring.  Illinois has 13 ammonia terminals that are fed foremost by pipeline, then by river barges, and just one by rail.  Illinois has only one nitrogen manufacturing plant, located in East Dubuque.  In the US, 60% of all nitrogen is imported from foreign countries, adding to the logistical challenges of positioning millions of tons in a timely and cost-effective manner along with hoping that the Gulf port is not shut down by a hurricane.    
  2. Storage capacity at Illinois ammonia terminals is not such that all the ammonia needed could be provided in the spring of the year; the capacity to “turn” the terminals fast enough in the peak 2-4 week spring window doesn’t exist today.  Expanding capacity at ammonia terminals is difficult due to regulatory permitting challenges.   And putting all the ammonia down in the spring is also a challenge due to a 7-10 day waiting period after application before you can plant corn; in late spring seasons, most farmers do not like to wait to plant and will go with UAN or urea so that they can plant immediately after application.   If Illinois went to spring-only for nitrogen, the capacity to meet the demand for UAN or urea does not currently exist, and competition for these two forms of N would be severe given their popularity in all the other agricultural states and the world.  When demand is high and supplies are constrained, everyone knows what price does. 
  3. Equipment and labor are also factors.  By having a fall and spring nitrogen season, the equipment required to apply ammonia and the people needed to run the equipment are more readily available because the work load is spread out.  Again, if all the nitrogen were to be applied in a 2-3 week period in the spring, the equipment required for this feat does not currently exist, and the personnel needed to run the equipment, probably 24-7, poses serious human resource challenges for ag retailers and farmers alike.  

Illinois farmers and the ag input industry recognize the challenges facing the nutrient sector.  We are already seeing more interest by farmers to back down on fall nitrogen rates, choosing to put down a half rate and then follow in the spring with the remaining nitrogen needs for the crop.  Over time, this transition will allow the industry to respond sensibly with the infrastructure, human resources and management planning necessary to provide more flexibility with regard to meeting the nitrogen demand.   Nitrogen management will continue to evolve, but in doing so the logistics and reality of storage, terminal capacity, equipment and human resources, combined with the surprises Mother Nature always has for us, require us to be honest about the challenges and pragmatic about the future. 

Jean Payne
Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association


CTIC founded the Indian Creek Watershed Project to increase adoption of conservation agricultural systems and measure effectiveness of different nutrient management practices.

Over 120 farmers, agribusiness, government and non-profit organization representatives attended last month’s Indian Creek Watershed Project field tour in Livingston County, Ill., hosted by CTIC and our public and private partners.   These include Livingston County Soil and Water Conservation District, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (with funds from Section 319 of the Clean Water Act), Agrium Advanced Technologies, AGROTAIN International, The Fertilizer Institute, Monsanto, Mosaic, Illinois Corn Marketing Board, Agri Drain Corporation, Case IH, John Deere, ADM and International Plant Nutrition Institute.  Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association and Illinois Soybean Association contributed funds to defray costs of the tour.

Each field tour stop represented conservation agricultural systems focused on efficient nutrient management and products, practices and technology that can boost profitable farming and improve water quality.

The slow release fertilizer demonstration at Herb Steffen’s farm featured a controlled-release nitrogen (N) source ( Agrotain’s SuperU) to boost N use efficiency.  Nitrogen loss starts the moment the farmer applies fertilizer and can add up over time. SuperU blocks the enzyme urease to prevent N loss into the air.  This technology allows the crop to access N immediately, but controls losses in critical weeks after application.

The Steffen site also demonstrated SuperU with a small-plot N use efficiency rate demonstration, which will help determine the most efficient rate for the location and season.

 A soil test at the Steffen site showed a relatively low phosphorus (P) level, so we developed a demonstration of Mosaic’s Micro-Essentials (MESZ) applied as a side-dress (plant nutrients placed on or in the soil near the roots of a growing crop) to provide an additional boost in available P.

MESZ allows uniform nutrient distribution and provides essential nutrients in one granule. Two forms of sulfur provide season-long nutrition. We side-dressed MESZ at two rates and established a control plot where it was not applied.

At the Norman Harms farm we featured the benefits of N fertilizer split application. Farmers applying N close to the time it will be used by the crop avoid costly waste.

This demonstration compares 3 application times:  fall, spring, and split application (½ applied in fall and ½ applied in spring).

A second demonstration at Harms’ compares the full recommended N rate with a reduced rate (85% of recommended rate) using a controlled-release source, ESN®.

ESN® technology delivers N all season, allowing the crop to reach full genetic potential. The polymer coating helps prevent against N loss to surface water, subsurface drainage and groundwater, benefitting water quality.

Crop Production Services provided a John Deere 2510H nutrient applicator to apply fertilizer for this demonstration.

We stopped at John Traub’s farm to learn about strip-till N application.

In this system, the farmer uses real-time kinematic (RTK) precision guidance to apply N fertilizer in fall or early spring in a closely-controlled location where the seed will be sown.

Strip-till systems combine soil drying and warming benefits of conventional tillage and soil-protecting advantages of no-till by disturbing only the portion of soil that will contain the seed row.

At Traub’s we used fall-applied N with an RTK strip-till system and will compare it to a conventional chisel plow system. 

We also compared N use efficiency (NUE) rates with field-scale equipment, so the farmer can apply the rate treatments and harvest the plots without interrupting his normal production routine.  Every farmer can adopt this simple practice.

Find out more about this project at  CTIC seeks additional project sponsors.  For more information contact me at 317-508-2450 or

Christa Jones
CTIC Project Director