Scientists, with funding from USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, are developing a new tool that will improve water quality by helping farmers decide when and where to apply their fertilizer to fields.

The Fertilizer Forecaster is a Web-based decision-support tool that can be used before fertilizer is applied to assess the risk of nutrients running off into surface water.

The initiative is a collaboration of Penn State University and USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, which have received a grant of $484,000 to develop the tool.

“Mandated nutrient management plans are designed to provide guidance for farmers that can help them make prudent decisions,” said project director Patrick Drohan, assistant professor of pedology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

“But these plans may not provide the day-to-day support required to make operational decisions — particularly when and where to apply nutrients in the short term,” he said. “These short-term decisions can make the difference between whether the nutrients impact water quality or are efficiently utilized by crops.

“Data from on-farm trials will be used to assess farmers’ fertilizer, manure and tillage-management decisions before and after conscientious use of the Fertilizer Forecaster,” Drohan said. “This will help us to understand not only the effectiveness of the tool, but also characteristics of farmers with the greatest potential to benefit from such a tool.”

Although the tool is being developed specifically for the Pennsylvania region, it’s impact could be useful on a state, regional and national level.

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