HERE’S A FARMER YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT: TED MOTTAZ

Mottaz_TedIllinois 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

conservation tillageThe 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)

4Rs
Credit: NutrientStewardship.com

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.

McDonald_Taylor

Taylor McDonald
Communications Assistant
IL Corn

# TBT: HOW FARMERS ARE PROTECTING ILLINOIS WATER

This post really is a vital foundational piece to understanding one of the biggest goals for Illinois farmers in the coming years.  We want to get better at understanding and using the practices that preserve water quality.  If you missed this the first time around – or just need a refresher – read on!

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 MiracleGro to your potted house plants 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

 

WATER TESTING IS ONE SOLUTION

Our IL Corn office continues to work extensively on preserving the quality of the water in Illinois.  What that basically means for us is that we’re working really hard with farmers to help them understand the problem and their opportunities to be a part of the solution.  We’re also working with regulators (like the EPA) to show them the progress we’re making with farmers and with other cooperators and interested parties like the National Fish and Wildlife Federation who give us funding for programming to help promote clean water.

One of our biggest pushes right now is to get farmers thinking about testing the water coming off of their fields.  (To understand better why water coming off of their fields matters, read this background post!)

You might not have thought about it, but the old adage “April Showers bring May Flowers” comes into play.  We all know that it typically rains more often in the spring.  As the fields are starting to “wake up” from the winter, they often get tons of rainwater falling on them water testing sitesand the farmers that have applied nutrients for their spring seedlings likely see some of those nutrients washed away in the spring rains.

So we’re starting now.  We might not prevent that nutrient loss in 2016, but we hope we’ll help farmers see the nutrients they are losing this spring to help them change their practices for 2017.  Farmers definitely want clean water, but they also want their seedlings to have access to all the needed nutrients as they grow.  AND they don’t want to watch nutrients they paid for be washed into the ditches and streams in the area.

Farmers want to fix this problem.

Our education starts with water testing sits all over the state.  We’re encouraging farmers to stop at their tiles and ditches this spring and bring water samples to testing sites.  We want them to see on a weekly basis how changes in precipitation and timing can impact nutrient loss and water quality on their farms.

It’s all about the environment and leaving the resources a little better than we found them.  Farmers are definitely willing to do their part – and with a little help and education, we know we’ll get them there!

Mitchell_LindsayLindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Manager

ALL WE WANT FOR CHRISTMAS: A FUNCTIONING STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

dear santa

 

 

It’s become a tradition and we aren’t stopping now!  Want to know what’s on IL Corn’s Christmas list this year?  We’re hoping Santa brings us …

 

 

3. A Functioning State and Federal Government

Here’s the thing: an organization like ours appreciates the opportunity to get things done.  Getting things done within a non-functioning government framework is very, very difficult.  Ergo, our organization isn’t getting anything done for farmers – and it’s frustrating.

Illinois State House Capitol - Springfield
Illinois State House Capitol – Springfield

Illinois is in a bit different scenario than some of our fellow Midwestern ag states.  Most of them are dealing with the same frustrating federal government status quo, but they find opportunities to benefit farmers in their states by moving state initiatives and they still accomplish some good.

In Illinois, we can’t move state OR federal initiatives.  So we often feel like we’re twiddling our thumbs.

In spite of the broken state of our state and federal government, we have accomplished a few things:

  1. The livestock industry in Illinois is growing.  Certainly, this has much to do with market signals that are screaming at farmers to invest, but the economic impact that results from investment in the livestock industry (an estimated $70 million!) can’t hurt our broken state.
  2. We are effectively working with our state EPA and other agencies to clean up Illinois water.  To date, we have several important projects going on – both research and educational – to help farmers understand the VOLUNTARY practices that will minimize nutrient run off.  When we keep the practices voluntary but still accomplish the goal, we relieve the burden of paperwork for farmers and the cost of implementation for our state.
  3. We’ve secured some federal grant monies to help with that fuel pump standardization priority that I mentioned yesterday.  With any luck, many of the fuel pumps will be ready to handle higher blends of ethanol by this time next year!

Though we’ve found places to make a difference and we’re continuing to positively impact the farmers in Illinois, it would definitely be nice to have a functioning government to help and not hinder our growth.

Santa, this is a huge ask, but can you make our government work!?

 

Mitchell_LindsayLindsay Mitchell
ICGA/ICMB Marketing Manager

 

 

We also want:

5. Better relationships with our customers – overseas and domestic

4. Pump standardization

2. More Stable Farm Profitability

CONSERVATION IS A PRIORITY IN THESE THREE STEPS …

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

 

HOW FARMERS ARE PROTECTING ILLINOIS WATER

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

 

NUTRIENT LOSS IS A COMPLICATED PROBLEM!

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

GULF HYPOXIA ZONE IS SMALLER THAN PREDICTED

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.

WATER QUALITY EFFORTS IN ILLINOIS

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

AGRICULTURE WORKING TO PRESERVE WATER QUALITY

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