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When getting started with new conservation and sustainability practices, it can be challenging to know where to start. Should I look at tillage or cover crops first? Does it make the most sense to adapt my nutrient management approach or change how I soil test? When you find yourself asking these questions, one of the best first steps is to explore what others have done and consider how their learnings can be leveraged on your farm.

On our most recent Soil Sessions webinar, we focused on farmer experiences and case studies that can help you better understand different approaches and their impact. In this session, Dr. Sally Flis of The Fertilizer Institute shared findings from their case studies (specifically around implementation of 4R practices for nutrient management) and Lisa Kubik from Soil Health Partnership shared key takeaways from a recent SHP business case featuring Roger and Wesley Zylstra in Iowa.

Finding the Approach That Works for You Takes Time

It can be easy to want a quick fix for building soil health or adapting nutrient management strategies, and yet Lisa and Sally both emphasized how their farmers have had to dial in their approach over time.

At Cox Land and Cattle Co. – a 4R Advocate farm in Illinois – Sally shared how Maria Cox and her family have been experimenting with different approaches to tillage, cover crops, sampling techniques, variable rate and split fertilizer application, and conservation practices (buffer strips, grassed waterways, CRP) to find a system that works for them.

Similarly, Lisa shared how the Zylstras have adapted several management practices since the beginning of their SHP trial work. These changes range from adjustments in fertilizer type and timing to cover crop seeding rate and application. Each change was made with the farm’s equipment, labor and schedule needs in mind.

Things to consider when choosing a system that fits your farm include:

  • Soil characteristics
  • The specifics of your site
  • Crop yield and quality goals
  • Manure management
  • Weather
  • Cost

Sustainability and Stewardship Must be Balanced with Profitability and Productivity

Whether farmers were featured in nutrient management or soil health case studies, they all expressed a desire to run sustainable farms and be good stewards of their resources. With that in mind, though, they all recognized the importance of balancing that desire with the reality of paying attention to profitability and productivity.

This focus on cost, according to Sally, was one of the driving factors behind The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) creating a series of case studies. In these farm experiences, TFI and their partners looked at the economics of shifting from basic nutrient management practices to advanced practices. In one example, featuring an Illinois corn farmer, the grower saw a decrease in cost of $15-24 per acre as they moved from basic to advanced practices. This savings was driven by improvements in nutrient use efficiency, nitrogen balance and CO2 emissions.

In the Zylstra business case, Lisa highlighted how the farm has seen an improvement in yield, despite applying the same amount of nitrogen as in years past. She says Roger Zylstra credits this improvement to changes in application timing, type, and method, which allows him to put nutrients where the crops need it at the right time in the season for best utilization.

What both presenters emphasized is that it doesn’t have to be an either/or approach. Their case studies reveal that improvements in management practices driven by a desire to be more sustainable can also have a positive economic impact.

Digging In

These takeaways are only the tip of the iceberg of Sally’s and Lisa’s presentation and their observations from on-farm research. To learn even more about their work and what farmers are learning at the intersection of nutrient management, soil health and conservation practices, check out the full Soil Sessions webinar.