Ag professionals discussed nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) challenges and solutions in a three-day conference in Kansas City, Mo., this summer, but implementation of tactics and programs by farmers is seen as an “uphill battle” that could take years.

A lot of the discussion centered on third-party influencers such as ag retailers, crop consultants and farm managers being champions for change.

The group of agronomists, crop and soil scientists, Extension agents, economists, growers and other agricultural experts gathered to mainly discuss nitrogen use efficiency and the barriers and opportunities for improving implementation. The interesting list of what was learned is below along with proposed solutions.

“We wanted to create a forum where both academics and practitioners from public and private sectors could roll up their sleeves together and figure out why we aren’t currently doing a better job of growing more food with less pollution,” explained the meeting organizer, Eric Davidson, Ph.D., of the Woods Hole Research Center. “We already have the knowledge and techniques to make agriculture productive and environmentally sustainable, but we suspect that several perceived economic risks and traditions make change an uphill battle.”

The event took place in Kansas City so that crop advisors who work in the heart of corn production in the Midwest could share their perspectives, and update their knowledge of nutrient management options. Indeed, crop advisors were able to earn continuing education credits through co-sponsorship of the conference by the Soil Science Society of America.

Though many of the talks featured technical research on the latest advances in NUE, what had everyone talking was the opportunity to discuss frankly what motivates some farmers to adopt best management practice (BMP) for nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) while others don’t. Here’s what conference attendees learned:

Social networks. Farmers are much more likely to adopt practices if they are connected into existing social networks. To that end, it is incredibly important for practitioners promoting NUE to engage with others who the farmer is going to talk to, including input dealers and crop consultants. 

Economic signals regarding the cost of nitrogen fertilizers are mixed.  While many farmers say nitrogen fertilizer is expensive enough for them to improve use efficiency, most also agree that the economic risk of applying too little nitrogen is high. In short, nitrogen application provides an important economic margin of safety, like relatively inexpensive insurance.

Local impacts not visible enough. A lack of visible or tangible local consequences of nitrogen losses from farming operations makes further improvements of NUE a difficult sell. While many are aware of the role excess fertilizer can play in causing severe pollution problems, such as the Gulf of Mexico dead zone that kills fish over thousands of square miles, that impact is far from their backyard.

How much? Lack of trust in government or university recommendations of optimal fertilization rates, confusion over complex or inconsistent recommendations, and unclear advantages and credits for participation in NUE and best management practice programs are serious barriers to their more widespread adoption. In addition, most U.S. farmers currently get most of their information about NUE management practices from fertilizer, seed and feed retailers. If input dealers and crop consultants do not understand the need for the practices, then the farmers are highly unlikely to adopt them.

Not enough time. Most farmers are already working from before dawn to past dusk, so learning about and adopting new practices requires that the proposed innovations are compelling, easily implemented, and worth their time.

Old dogs resistant to new tricks. While many younger farmers are eager to adopt new technologies and internet-based information about NUE practices, the reality remains that changing longstanding practices that appeared to work for mom and dad or grandpa often meets resistance.

Solutions

Attendees proposed these major solutions to move more farmers to adopt NUE practices:

1. Develop partnerships between industry, universities, governments, conservation NGOs, crop advisors, and farmers to demonstrate the most current, economically feasible best management practices in strategic locations across the U.S.—starting with targeted watersheds that are struggling with the largest nitrogen losses.

2. Develop more local on-farm examples in numerous regions of successful efforts that show it’s possible to improve NUE and reduce nitrogen losses while maintaining good yields and profitability.

3. Provide improved, continuing education to private sector retailers and advisors on the most up to date nutrient management practices. By increasing farmers’ trust in nutrient management recommendations the perception of risk will decrease, resulting in less need to apply nitrogen for “insurance” purposes.

4. Restore investments in research, education, and extension, which have been declining in the U.S. agricultural sectors. Federal and state governments must increase their support of knowledge-based agriculture, including both university-based and on-farm, watershed, and landscape-scale nitrogen management research and outreach. This should include long-term interdisciplinary research that integrates agronomic, ecological, economic and social science concerns around food production and environmental impacts.

5. Ensuring clean drinking water for generations to come is one of the most compelling reasons for increased improvements in NUE. Given the significant lag time that can occur between NUE adoption and reduced groundwater nitrate concentrations, action is needed now. A successful program started in the 1980s in the Platte River Valley of Nebraska provides a stellar example that effective clean-up of drinking water pollution is possible over the long term.