Connecting farmers to understand and improve nitrogen decisions

Connecting farmers to understand and improve nitrogen decisions

Since 2015, the Discovery Farms nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) project has conducted assessments on Wisconsin farms to establish benchmarks for Wisconsin specific farming systems and to assist farmers in their N management. Five regions have been included in these assessments to determine how NUE can evaluate a field’s efficiency relative to nearby farms and how to improve NUE using different nitrogen management techniques.

We asked a few NUE farmer participants to share their experience and lessons learned from the project so far. 

Don Niles Kewaunee County

Don is a dairy farmer and has been involved with the NUE Project since 2016. He serves as the president of Peninsula Pride Farms, a producer-led watershed initiative which works in collaboration to achieve the goal of clean, safe water and a thriving agricultural community.

Tony Peirick Dodge County

Tony is a dairy farmer and has participated in the NUE Project since its launch in 2015. He has been an integral part in the Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil and Healthy Water group, and enjoys holding cover crop demonstrations on his farm.

Brian Maliszewski Trempealeau County        

Brian owns a feeder cattle and crop operation in the Elk Creek Watershed. Brian is the chairman of the Buffalo Trempealeau Farmer Network, a farmer-led watershed group. Brian has been participating in the NUE project since 2016.

Niles, Peirick and Maliszewski all expressed how this project is a great opportunity for farmers to demonstrate and enhance their efforts to improve N management, protect water quality and increase their stewardship of the land. Peirick writes, “By conducting research on our farms, Discovery Farms has helped us as farmers to improve our bottom line. Discovery Farms is the link between farmers and non-farmers to better tell our story of what farmers are doing to improve the environment.”

The NUE project operates in regional clusters to standardize regional benchmarks for efficiency values, promote collaboration among farmers, and provide an environment where farmers can learn from one another. Niles writes, “By combining our individual data the NUE project has been a very valuable tool to Peninsula Pride Farms to help us design best management practices for our land.”

Maliszewski adds, “Everyone in the Elk Creek Watershed group manages their farms differently, so I find it important to feed off of everyone’s information and to have UW Discovery Farms to make sense of it all. Not only is this research beneficial for my operation but for our environment, neighbors, public, and other agricultural groups.”

Farmers evaluate what contributes to their NUE, including regional or field specificities, soil type, weather conditions, and existing farm and nitrogen management practices. Niles says, “The information we receive gives us insights into different farming practices related to nitrogen loss in a field,” practices such as higher nitrogen rates and failure to credit amendments properly.

Maliszewski uses his cattle manure, as well as purchased dairy and chicken manure, to amend his soil. This variety of sources makes manure management especially challenging. Like Maliszewski, many participants in this project use manure. NUE has been a useful tool in assessing how to better manage multiple sources of N to improve economic efficiency and decrease the risk of N loss. Another thing that Maliszewski hopes to gain from the project is an understanding of “the correlation between cover crops as well as the uptake of nutrients, and the use of commercial fertilizers.” This interest in soil health, cover crops, and tillage practices and how these management decisions relate to NUE and N management is very common within the project. Some participants, including Peirick have established cover crop trials and demonstration plots which Discovery Farms has monitored for NUE to begin to understand some of these relationships.

Maliszewski enthusiastically listed some of the questions that he hopes to gain insight from the NUE project including “How do I get more yield with less?” and “Can organic matter from cover crops improve the use and efficiency of commercial fertilizers?”  he concludes: “these questions do not have answers yet but will.” Each new finding brings another new question, but we are excited to have such wonderful partners in this exploration.

Farmer-led research conducted on farm fields under realistic conditions has enabled us to create a dataset of Wisconsin specific NUE values. In 2018 we will continue to expand this dataset and produce new educational materials to assist farmers in implementing NUE trials on their own fields, develop new project areas and partnerships, and identify new questions. §