Nestled in the headwaters of Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico, Ohio farmer John Buck has to monitor nutrients. It’s something he does every day to protect his livelihood and third-generation farm.

“It’s important we do things the right way when people start pointing fingers,” Buck says. “It’s better to start using nutrient-reduction practices now than be forced into costly changes,” he adds.

The time is now. Water-quality legislation dates back almost seven decades, but efforts have accelerated in the past 20 years. For example, the Hypoxia Task Force (HTF), formed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), consists of 12 states along the Mississippi River Basin. In the past five years, each state has created a nutrient-reduction strategy to help point sources (such as wastewater treatment plants) and nonpoint sources (such as farms) decrease their footprint. For retailers and their farmer customers, this could mean new or stricter recommendations or, in some cases, regulations for crop and/or livestock operations.

“All states agreed to a common goal of 45% total nutrient reduction in the Gulf by 2035 and 20% by 2025,” says Ellen Gilinsky, EPA HTF co-chair.

Road map from EPA. To reach that goal, EPA provided a framework with eight components for states to include when creating nutrient-reduction strategies.

“Each state’s strategy is, by nature, different,” Gilinsky says. “They have different crops, water and topography.”

For example, in Ohio, Buck and fellow farmers have to be certified to apply nutrients on their own fields, which is a first in the U.S.

States with tile drains, such as Iowa and Minnesota, recommend adding biofilters on field ends, saturated buffers or controlled wetlands.

“Seventy percent of Minnesota’s nitrogen pollution is off crop land,” says Wayne Anderson, principal engineer in the watershed division of Minnesota EPA and coordinator of the state nutrient strategy. “Of that 70%, the largest pathway for loss is from tile drainage (37%).”

To reduce nutrient runoff from fields, common recommendations include cover crops and better nutrient-application practices. Cover crops can reduce nutrient loss by 30%, Anderson says. Better nutrient management helps reduce excess nutrient loss by 10% to 20%.

“We’ve ramped up the use of cover crops in the past couple of years. This year, around 500,000 acres are in cover crops,” says Matt Lechtenberg, Iowa Department of Agricultural Land and Stewardship water-quality initiative coordinator. 

Strength in numbers. States are also working to educate ag service providers and farmers on proper nutrient management.

“If 80% of our farmers would optimize fertilizer rates, especially farmers applying manure or growing soybeans in rotation with corn, we’d see a 13% reduction toward our target [level of nutrients in watersheds],” Anderson adds.

Nutrient reduction is a conversation here to stay. Find out what your state is doing and prepare to help customers adopt the changes coming your way. 

This article appeared in the November Crop Fertility Quarterly of Ag Pro magazine

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