Growth Points: Precision, the stewardship factor

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If you need another example of the stewardship value of precision ag tools and technology just give a glance toward the Lake Erie watershed.

Ohio has a new law requiring anyone who applies commercial fertilizer to more than 50 acres to be certified by the state. Ohio Governor John Kasich signed the regulations into law in late May. Certification will be required by 2017.

An especially large algae bloom in 2011 attributed to phosphorus runoff in Lake Erie created a public outcry that eventually led to the rule. It has certainly gained the attention of retail operators in Indiana and Michigan as well as Ohio.

“This certification will be in the spirit of the 4Rs Nutrient Stewardship principles,” said Chris Henney, president of the Ohio AgriBusiness Association (OABA), who has worked to represent interests of the ag community as the legislation came through. “Ohio’s certification is to make sure that the person — the human, the individual — has the proper information and knowledge to carry out effective nutrient application in an appropriate way.”

And that means both retail humans and farmer humans. A law covering both, at the same time, with the same regulation, may actually be a first. In the face of similar regulations, farmers have often been granted exemptions.

“Yes, I think this could be the first time that farmers will have to be certified to apply fertilizer anywhere in the country,” said Henney.  

Yield and profitability considerations come first in the adoption of new precision ag technology.  The stewardship component is often undervalued. Regs like these put another light on precision agriculture as a solution to the public scrutiny crop producers face everywhere, not just in more environmentally-sensitive areas such as the Lake Erie watershed.

click image to zoomTerry Bechman, Anderson’s Farm Center, Waterloo, Ind. Across the border in Indiana, Terry Bechman manages the Anderson’s Farm Center near Waterloo, north of Ft. Wayne and one of four Indiana counties in inside the Lake Erie watershed.

This operation was once called Dekalb Agra, and was an early adopter of precision ag services. He is now applying this experience to adding a higher level of nutrient management for his grower-customers. In fact, Bechman and his customers at Brand Farms were honored as 4R Advocates this year by The Fertilizer Institute. (Learn more at www.nutrientstewardship.org.) With more scrutiny of phosphorus use, Bechman is thankful for growers experienced with precision agriculture.

“We’ve been fortunate that some of these growers have been involved with variable-rate fertilizer from the beginning in the early ‘90s,” he said. “They are clear on the benefits to their operations.”

The 4Rs effort – right source, right rate, right time, right place – provided another reason to advance precision services with customers.

“Once 4Rs got going it fit into the kind of thing we were doing with our growers," he said. The Waterloo Farm Center sent information to customers, trying to connect with as many land owners as they could as well.

“The algae bloom has been in the news for several years up here, so the growers know about it. We’ve always worked to do thing right, and man, we’ve done a lot of things to make this better (Lake Erie) and we’re still getting blamed for it,” Bechman says. Anderson’s has spent time educating growers during winter meetings and summer plot tours over the past several years.

“Most effective might have been the time we sponsored a Lake Erie charter boat captain to share his story,” says Bechman. “Hearing how this man’s business was affected really helped our guys understand what’s at stake.”

Bechman said a “good 30 to 40 percent” of his growers will always think about stewardship issues when they approach their crop planning.

“I would like to think it is more,” he said. But, in all honesty, Bechman continues, it’s yield and cost control that is driving the decision-making. He thinks that making the connection of both the economic benefits and the stewardship benefits can help some reluctant growers see the value of precision agriculture and be willing to pay what it takes for the retail offering. 

“I think we need to do more in linking precision agriculture with nutrient stewardship,” said Bechman. “There are economic and stewardship benefits to putting it exactly where we need it.” 


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