Jim Andrew heard that nutrients from farms like his were traveling to the Gulf of Mexico and contributing to the hypoxic zone, a low-oxygen area in the Gulf that threatens shellfish and other aquatic life. So the Jefferson, Iowa, no-tiller went to Louisiana to learn more.
Andrew brought with him decades of research that had been done on nutrient management on his farm, including soil tests that date back to his father’s start on the family operation in 1952. There were also volumes of data collected by graduate students and renowned Iowa State University soil scientist Fred Blackmer, nicknamed “Doctor N” for his in-depth studies of nitrogen in the soil.
Last, he brought his passion for conservation, his head for numbers and the perspective gained through his family’s history on the farm, which dates back to the 1870s.
As much as he respects the history of his family operation, Andrew is not bound by it. He’s quick to challenge the accepted wisdom on fertilizer rates, some of which date back to his father’s early days as a fertilizer dealer, when he brought the first anhydrous tanks to Greene County in the ‘50s.
“In the academic community, it’s become very commonly accepted that you have to have umpteen pounds of nitrogen per bushel of yield,” Andrew says. “We have a lot finer measurement techniques today than they had then, and the ability to use a yield monitor has made it a lot easier to judge a field for weak spots rather than eyeballing it.”
One-Third Less N. Every year, Andrew sets aside three 80-acre parcels for corn fertility trials, which provides room for multiple, replicated 12-row strips. That has given him a chance to see the impact of various rates of nitrogen — and challenge his own assumptions.
“One hundred pounds of nitrogen gave the most return on investment,” he reports. “This was quite shocking to me initially because I was following a previous university formula, which said I should be putting on 150 pounds.”
Andrew notes that, even applying one-third less nitrogen than conventional wisdom would suggest, his 2008 corn yields averaged between 165 and 175 bushels per acre, and he expects to cross over the 200-bushel mark with new genetics this season.
But squeezing high productivity out of low fertilizer rates doesn’t happen by accident.
“You have to study your ground to get the best starting point,” he notes.
Every 4 years, Andrew pulls soil samples and has them tested for nutrient levels and organic matter at Iowa State University. The first year after getting results back, he adjusts phosphorus and potassium to bring low spots up to speed, working closely with a commercial applicator and a GPS-referenced map that identifies areas that require treatment.
“Most is high anyway — I come from the advantage of already having the soil built up,” he notes. “We don’t want to just go out there and apply. I want to go on a more prescribed basis, even if I have to put on the phosphorus separate from the potassium.”
Andrew notes that he takes care to maintain an appropriate balance among his nutrients.
“In some cases, there are people who don’t have the right balance between phosphorus and potassium to get the best use out of their nitrogen,” he says. “If all of that is out of kilter, you’re just lighting dollar bills up with a match. If I went out every year just putting broadcast replacement out, we’d be just overapplying and out of kilter, going from one problem to another.”
Each spring, he applies his own anhydrous ammonia as needed, varying his ground speed during application to adjust rates. He says the tactic gets him within 10% of his target rate. Tissue tests before harvest shed light on how much nitrogen the crop has consumed, which in turn helps Andrew determine rates for the next spring’s application.
No-Till Advocate. Minimizing the flow of nutrients into local streams — and ultimately, into the Mississippi River that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico — starts with prescribing rates of fertilizer that are in-line with crop needs. The next step is helping ensure that the nutrients stay on the field and soak into the soil rather than flowing off with sediment during rainstorms.
That’s one of the driving motivations behind Andrew’s commitment to no-till.
“We’ve had unbelievably heavy rains the last 2 years in this immediate area, and we’ve had to make very few repairs,” he says. “I can take up to 8 inches of rain in a 24- to 48-hour period before what I call ‘my sponge’ fills up. My neighbors start ponding up after 3 or 4 inches. I can listen to it rain at night and roll over and go to sleep.”
Buffers enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) surround his fields, capturing soil carried by storms before it leaves the field. They also protect the inlet to a drainpipe that empties into a drainage ditch — and provides Andrew with a look at the effectiveness of grass buffers.
“Before we put in that CRP, we could see some cases when soil and water would run directly into that pipe,” he recalls. “We would see mounds of nice, black dirt below the tube where it would dump into the ditch. Now it has to go through the CRP ground, and I don’t see the mounds building up.”
Andrews’ approach to conservation — which covers all angles on his farm — makes him an Upstream Hero, says Karen Scanlon, executive director of the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) in West Lafayette, Ind.
“He’s clearly not afraid to challenge his assumptions, and to challenge conventional wisdom and the way things are always done,” Scanlon says. “That reflects insight and courage, and the benefits that result go beyond his turnrow, beyond his local watershed, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s what makes Jim Andrew a true Upstream Hero.”
Teaming Up. Andrew has joined a local effort to protect the Raccoon River watershed, working with the On-Farm Network of the Iowa Soybean Association, the Des Moines Waterworks and the American Clean Water Alliance to monitor and study nutrient levels in local creeks.
A series of solar-powered stations pull water samples as the creek level rises, which typically indicates a rain event. On an immediate level, results of the water testing can alert waterworks operators if an increased nitrate load is heading toward the drinking water treatment plant — they could then decide whether to treat the water for higher nitrate levels or switch to drawing water from the Des Moines River, Andrew says.
For the long term, the project may help demonstrate the impact of best management practices on nutrient flows in the watershed.
“We’ll see if we can move the needle by changing application rates,” Andrew says.
Andrew also helped establish the first new drainage district in Iowa in the past 50 years. Participating growers and landowners installed buffers and cleaned up ditches, helping ensure that drainage water reaching the river system is cleaner than ever.
It all goes to prove that environmental protection is a team sport.
That’s a message that was reinforced when Andrew traveled down to Louisiana with the Sand County Foundation to explore the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone first-hand.
Scientists at the meeting described the hypoxic zone, which grows in the spring and summer to cover an area the size of Massachusetts, and detailed its effects on aquatic life. Local residents discussed the impact of hypoxia on the local fishing industry. And participants representing groups ranging from Ducks Unlimited to The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund sought to determine where the excess nutrients were coming from, and how levels could be reduced.
“It’s been a good working relationship,” Andrew says. “I can remember a day when the farm community and the environmental community were just based on prejudice. As years have gone by, by being proactive, we’ve been able to open up a lot of opportunities with the environmental community and actually talk and be respectful to one another.”
That dialogue and respect is going to be critical in the years to come — addressing the challenge of reducing the size of the hypoxic zone will take commitment up and down the system, Andrew adds.
He notes that although contributions of nutrients from Midwestern farms have received a lot of notoriety in the press, other factors — such as the harvest of cypress trees along the Gulf Coast for landscape mulch, eliminating vast forests that used to filter nutrients flowing downstream — have also added to the problem.
“OK, guys,” Andrew tells Coast residents, “we’ll go to work on our end up North, and you get those cypress trees and natural wetlands back.”
Bringing The Mission Home. Andrew definitely brought the nutrient management mission home to Iowa. He was one of the first farmers in Iowa to earn the Class III designation in the Conservation Security Program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, in recognition of his aggressive conservation farming practices.
He continues to open his farm to Iowa State University experiments. He conducts research of his own in conjunction with hundreds of fellow growers through the Iowa Soybean Association’s On-Farm Network. And he firmly espouses the belief that farmers can benefit themselves and their neighbors downstream by managing nutrients more carefully.
“Here’s a chance to control your destiny,” Andrew tells his fellow producers. “Take a little effort to assess what you really need. I’d rather be proactive and set my own course than to be dictated, ‘you can only put on umpteen pounds, no matter what.’”
Soon enough, conservation becomes second nature, he adds.
“You don’t practice conservation or environmental discipline — you live it,” Andrew says. “You get to the point where it’s a no-brainer.”
When it reaches that point — as it has on Andrew’s farm — it sends an important message from a little creek in Iowa all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We’re doing every darned thing in our capacity not to be a contributor to problems downstream of us,” he says.