Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs) across the country routinely address pests, diseases, weeds and other agronomic issues with their farmer-customers. In Illinois, CCAs are also working closely with industry stakeholders to address and reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that the state contributes annually to the Gulf of Mexico.

“CCAs are instrumental in providing guidance to farmers on the 4R practices—right rate and right source of nutrients, at the right time and in the right place—that improve nutrient utilization and reduce nutrient losses,” says Lisa Martin, coordinator for the Illinois CCA Program. “Our CCAs are a really diverse group of people, including farmers, seedsmen, chemical salesmen and representatives from regulatory.”

Defined Goals. Illinois holds the dubious distinction of contributing more nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico than any other single state. The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, established by the state Environmental Protection Agency, has a goal to reduce nitrogen losses by 15% and phosphorus losses by 25% by 2025.

So far, collective efforts by industry stakeholders across the state have contributed to an 11% overall reduction in the amount of nitrogen going from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, notes Jean Payne, Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association president. A 2016 study by the University of Illinois reports that the nitrate load in the Illinois River alone from 2010 to 2014 was 10% less than the average load in the 1980s and early 1990s.

“Those are strong indications we’re on our way to meeting the nitrogen goal within the next seven years,” Payne says.

She attributes much of the state’s success to the domino effect that occurs when CCAs work with growers. “Every CCA who listens to a presentation or participates in a training program then takes that knowledge home to 40 or so farmers, so you get a huge exponential impact,” she notes.

While Illinois has made headway with nitrogen, that’s not the case with phosphorus. Payne says much of the phosphorus in Illinois rivers is attributed to treatment plants and their need to upgrade nutrient removal systems to better manage wastewater from the urban sector.

“They understand phosphorus is their big lift, while the nitrogen issue is agriculture’s big lift,” she notes.

Scott Lagger says CCAs have addressed the issue of nitrogen loss by working closely with farmers to improve product management and application timing.

“We used to put most of our N on fields in the fall, but very little of that happens now,” says Lagger, current chairman of the Illinois CCA program and an agronomy salesman with CHS Inc.

Instead, Illinois farmers increasingly use split nitrogen applications to meet their crop fertility needs.

“More than half of our growers sidedress corn, and a number run custom sidedress bars,” he says. “Increased yield performance more than pays for the additional fuel cost, equipment wear-and-tear and time invested.”

More CCAs Needed. As the agriculture industry continues to address nutrient losses in Illinois and other states, CCAs will likely have a larger role in the process. They help to ensure that agriculture’s efforts to reduce nutrient losses remain within a voluntary framework. The 4R Nutrient Management Specialist exam gives CCAs even more training on this topic. For more information, visit www.certifiedcropadviser.org.