This story was originally published in Flatwater Free Press.
Kerry Knuth steers his sprayer across a field, occasionally craning his neck to watch his newest piece of equipment shoot fertilizer at the base of his growing corn.
He purchased this equipment, called a 360 Y-Drop, and attached it to the boom of his sprayer so the corn can absorb nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently – more nitrogen directly to the corn’s roots, less lost to the surrounding environment.
The Y-Drop can save him money on fertilizer costs. And, by using less nitrogen fertilizer, he also may be reducing the risk that nitrate enters the groundwater, which supplies drinking water to 85% of Nebraskans. Nitrate, research shows, is linked to a variety of diseases, including pediatric cancer and birth defects.
“We don’t relish the fact of polluting groundwater, whether it’s nitrates or chemicals,” said Angela Knuth, who farms with husband Kerry on family land near Mead.
The state’s nitrate-in-groundwater problem is growing worse, especially in parts of northeast, central and southeast Nebraska. The state median nitrate level doubled between 1978 and 2019.
But some Nebraska farmers and researchers are fighting back with technology. They are embracing new methods that can reduce nitrate leaching into groundwater, improve their soil’s health and also, they say, boost the bottom line.
Some farmers interviewed by the Flatwater Free Press have completely switched over to “regenerative agriculture”, a farming approach focusing on restoration of the environment, which advocates say also ultimately boosts farm productivity.
Others are marrying traditional farming with precision technologies like soil testing and remote sensing, or using more efficient equipment like the Knuths do.
Kerry Knuth can now put on fertilizer at ideal times, instead of having to time fertilizer application with center-pivot irrigation when the crops need water. Nitrate is tied to water usage, as more heavy irrigation tends to wash the nitrogen chemicals down into the soil, where they can eventually convert into nitrate and reach our water table, experts say.
The Knuths say they came to new farming technologies because they thought it was the right thing to do – and because it’s what they want to teach their children. More than two decades ago, they used anhydrous ammonia, a cheaper but also more volatile form of nitrogen fertilizer that’s more easily lost to groundwater. Kerry Knuth then switched to a liquid fertilizer.
In 2018, he bought the Y-Drop system and started split applying — supplying nitrogen to corn in multiple applications throughout the growing season rather than one full application. Since then, the family uses 15% less nitrogen fertilizer.
As the Knuths’ equipment evolved, the science that helps farmers like them make decisions was also evolving.
A formula developed by University of Nebraska-Lincoln agronomists has helped producers determine how much fertilizer they should use for decades. It now suggests that farmers use an average of about one pound of nitrogen per bushel of corn.
Some UNL researchers are working on optimizing the formula through field trials. And interestingly, their research shows that using way less nitrogen than the current UNL recommendation – as much as 40 fewer pounds per acre – didn’t detract from profits in any significant way, said UNL agronomy professor Javed Iqbal.
The question he’s trying to answer: How can we calculate nitrogen usage based on profit, and also environmental cost?
Even though the trial fields produced less corn yield with reduced fertilizer input, the yield still hit the maximum economic profitability range, with savings from fertilizer costs, Iqbal said.
Some farmers have sought natural solutions to cleaning up nitrate biologically. These farmers are leaning into regenerative agriculture and focusing on soil health.
Del Ficke was both figuratively and then quite literally breaking his back farming the traditional way on his family’s homesteaded land near Lincoln about 25 years ago. It increasingly felt wrong to the then-young farmer.
“This isn’t working, I’m spending a ton of money and I’m getting less and less. My soil’s getting worse,” Ficke said.
This revelation struck after Ficke quit farming following severe back pain and multiple surgeries. He went to college to study hospital billing and administration, then decided to return to farming, but with a drastically different approach.
He downsized his operation, shifted his focus on cattle and used the cow manure to enrich his soil.
“We’re 80% more profitable on 500 acres than several thousand, just because of our focus on getting the soil right. So less inputs, less equipment,” he said.
He uses 100% natural ingredients to boost soil nutrients: cattle manure and hydrolyzed fish.
Ficke now also runs a group called Graze Master, focusing on grass-fed beef and providing consulting and other services to farmers.
Others might call him a beef producer. He calls himself a grass farmer.
“A grass farmer title is pretty cool…we’re looking at the forages first in sync with nature and we built a program around it,” he said.
Reducing inputs like fertilizer sits at the heart of regenerative agriculture, said Keith Berns, founder of Green Cover Seed – and reducing inputs can make you more profitable.
Farming regeneratively often requires more management, but it can be done at any scale, Berns said.
He helps farmers across Nebraska to find the right cover crops and then helps them time the growth of these crops. Cover crops are one way that many Nebraskan farmers use to manage the amount of nitrogen in their soil.
Cereal rye, for example, is the most widely used cover crop that can “scavenge any leftover nitrogen,” Berns said, pulling nitrate out of the soil and reducing the risks of leaching.
When the cover crops die and break down, their nutrients become available to the new crops after being cycled by soil microbes, Berns said.
Regenerative farming needs to be coupled with better testing that more accurately accounts for nutrient availability within biologically active soils, Berns noted.
One example: Farmers can apply less nitrogen when the new crop can utilize nitrogen released by soil microbes from crop residues and organic matter. Traditional soil testing doesn’t accurately measure this. But a new test, called the Haney Test, does.
Ward Laboratories, a soil and water testing lab in Kearney, became the first commercial lab in Nebraska to adopt the Haney in 2013.
Haney tests take longer to conduct, said Ray Ward, founder of Ward Labs. But they also are worth it, he believes, because they often help a farmer save money while applying less nitrogen.
“It normally gives us… between 20 and 40 pounds of extra nitrogen that our nitrate test has not measured. That’s a way to… get at that better nitrogen recommendation or evaluation,” he said.
Another way to precision farm is to know when the crop needs nitrogen. Some farmers might tell you they’ve mastered the science from a lifetime of studying the weather and corn growth. But farmers have another weapon: Remote sensing.
Meet Jackson Stansell, a UNL graduate student who started the company Sentinel Fertigation.
From his computer, he can advise producers how much nitrogen to use and when. The software he wrote pulls in satellite imagery and determines how much nitrogen is already in the crop based on its reflectance — how green the leaves are. Then the software calculates and spits out recommendations on whether to apply more nitrogen now, or not.
UNL was at the forefront of developing remote sensing technologies for nitrogen management more than three decades ago.
Stansell’s software makes these recommendations in real time. It offers serious precision, by varying fertilizer application rates in different spots in the cornfield.
He is currently helping Nebraska and Kansas farmers manage nitrogen on roughly 19,000 acres of land.
On average, his clients used 42 fewer pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre last year, Stansell said. Some produced 280-bushel corn with 120 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, he said. That’s less than half of the UNL recommended amount.
“When we’re able to execute the method, we’ve seen that farmers have been able to maintain high yields while reducing nitrogen,” he said.
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