Minimizing nutrient loss helps maximize yield and, ultimately, profitability. But soil sampling and subsequent application of recommended nutrients is not enough. Nutrient management should involve an ongoing plan that includes sustainable practices to protect the environment.
Environmental resource goals especially call for more than a single conservation practice. A thorough nutrient management plan should include a menu of proven practices — based on the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship — to achieve cropping goals and protect the environment. For example, controlling runoff to trap nutrients from leaving the field enhances economically sustainable crop production and reduces agricultural non-point-source pollution.
It’s not necessary to comprehend all the scientific principles involved in soil fertility to achieve efficiency, maximize crop production and protect the environment. Instead, tap resources that include university Extension agents, retail agronomists, seed or chemical supplier field scientists, and crop consultants. Local advisers can help determine the relative amount of nutrients needed by crop and the amounts removed with harvest.
Nutrient management plans should be site-specific, tailored to the soils, landscapes and management objectives of your farm. The plan will consider soil and applied nutrients for maximum yield potential while minimizing undesired environmental effects. Plans can take advantage of diagnostic methods that include soil testing, plant analysis and crop sensors. If you didn’t get soil samples pulled last fall postharvest, sample soil in the spring in preparation for the growing season.
Here are some considerations involved in a good nutrient management plan:
- Obtain accurate soil information for each field or management unit. Examples include using existing National Resources Conservation Service soil maps or creating a new farm soil map. Collect soil samples representative of all areas of a field and have them analyzed by an accredited soil sampling lab.
- Calculate plant nutrient applications required. You should be able to get nutrient recommendations and harvest removal information for common crops from the NRCS, local Extension offices, and university soil fertility publications and websites.
- Estimate any applicable residual nutrient contributions from fertilizer or manures applied in previous seasons.
- Apply animal manures and commercial fertilizers to supply nutrients when needed by using practices that ensure high use efficiency, such as right source, rate, timing and placement.
- It’s important to keep records of nutrient sources, application dates, rates and methods for future reference.
Following the 4R nutrient stewardship principles — right source, right rate, right time, right place — is smart business and contributes to preserving natural resources, such as water quality and soil health, while minimizing the impact to the environment.