Imagine the nitrogen cycle is a trust fund kid with a gambling problem.
The young man (a corn field) is very rich (has rich black soil) but the money (nitrogen) he inherited from his father (the prairie) is locked in a trust fund (soil organic matter). Only a small portion of the funds are released to him each year (mineralized) following a complicated schedule determined by the trustees (microbes in the soil). In order to maintain the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed (provide enough nitrogen to the crop for good yields), he needs supplemental income (nitrogen from commercial fertilizer or manure). His sister (a soybean field) does not need to work (apply fertilizer) because she can borrow money from her well-connected husband (symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria) but she also receives payments from the trust (mineralization). She helps her brother out (corn needs less nitrogen fertilizer following soybeans) but not directly (soybeans actually use more nitrogen than they fix, so the benefits of the rotation has more to do with the behavior of the residue and disrupting corn pests).
Both siblings have a gambling (water quality) problem and are terrible poker players. Whenever they’re feeling flush with cash (when other forms of nitrogen have been converted to nitrate) they blow some of it playing cards (nitrate easily leaches out of the root zone when it rains), but the extent of the losses vary and debts aren’t always collected right away (nitrate leached out of the root zone may not immediately reach streams). They struggle with temptation more than their cousins (alfalfa and small grains) because they come from a broken home (the soil is fallow for large parts of the year) and because bills and income don’t arrive at the same time (there is a mismatch between the timing of maximum nitrogen and water availability and crop nitrogen and water use).
“”Okay, Dan, that’s very clever, but what’s your point?
Well, having compared the soil to a trust fund, I can now say “don’t confuse net worth with income.” You’ve probably heard that there 10,000 pounds per acre of nitrogen stored in a rich Iowa soil. That’s true but misleading. The amount actually released each year by decomposing organic matter (net mineralization) is only a few percent of that, comparable in size and importance to fertilizer or manure. Here’s an example nitrogen budget.
On average and over the long-term, we know that fields and watersheds with higher nitrogen applications (taking into account both manure and commercial fertilizer) leach more nitrate into the water. On average and over the long-term, we know that that farmers can profit by reducing their application rate to the Maximum Return To Nitrogen (the point at which another pound of nitrogen does not produce a big enough yield bump to offset the fertilizer costs). Right now, with corn prices high but fertilizer prices going nuts, the MRTN is 136 pounds per acre for corn following soybeans, while in the most recent survey I could find, farmers reported applying an average of 172 pounds per acre. So there’s room to save money while improving water quality!
But having compared nitrate leaching to gambling, I can also say “don’t confuse a balance sheet problem with a cash flow problem.” In any given year, it’s always a gamble how much of the nitrogen that’s applied will be washed away and how much will be available to the crop. Maybe some farmers are passing up on an opportunity to increase their profits because they’re not comfortable with the short-term risks.
Farmers say that extra nitrogen is cheap insurance. If that’s true, maybe we need crop insurance that makes it easier to do the right thing, not a more precise calculator.
By my calculations, over 65% percent of the nitrogen load in Ioway Creek on May 20 came from less than 1 percent of the land area in the watershed. We still don’t know why.
Revised May 31
Many people assume that fertilizer applied to turf grass is a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Iowa. At a presentation to the Ames City Council, I was asked if a public awareness campaign aimed at lawn care professionals and homeowners would be an effective way to improve water quality in Ioway Creek. If we’re talking nitrogen, I don’t think so:
Because turfgrass covers a tiny proportion of the land in most Iowa watersheds, compared to cropland.
Because turfgrass is a perennial. Having something growing and taking up available nutrients year-round is the principle on which cover crops reduce nitrogen loss.
Because there was a study by Dr. Keith Schilling that found very low nutrient levels in shallow groundwater below six Iowa golf courses.
To that list, I can add local water quality monitoring including lab testing and sensor results from May. Nitrate in Ioway Creek and the South Skunk River were the highest we’ve seen for a few years, but while rural tributaries ranged from 12-20 mg/L of nitrate, College Creek (an urban watershed with plenty of turf grass) measured only 2.3 mg/L.
But even if turf grass in general isn’t a serious water quality problem, maybe some specific areas of turf grass are a problem. That’s what I thought after reviewing the data from our spring water quality snapshot on May 17. Volunteers found a big difference in nitrate levels between South Duff Ave and other sites in Ames. I wondered if it could be a mistake, so I went back out on May 20 with a bottle of test strips and a smartphone app that enables more precise measurements. It wasn’t a mistake (nitrate in Ioway Creek increased from 8.6 mg/L to 24 mg/L in two miles), but the results still weren’t making sense, so I kept testing and testing until I assembled the map below. By my calculations, 65% of the nitrate load in Ioway Creek that day was coming from just 1,500 acres!
The 1,500 acres includes Coldwater Golf Links, and the pattern looks like what I’d expect to see if the golf course was overapplying fertilizer. However, the golf course superintendent has informed me that fertilizer has not been applied since fall, and then only at a low rate. A volunteer tested two ponds on the course and found low levels of nitrate (1-2 mg/L).
The 1,500 acres include some developed areas north of creek drained by storm sewers, but I tested water trickling from two outfalls on May 20 and found very low nitrate levels: 0.5 mg/L and 3.1 mg/L.
The 1,500 acres acres also includes two construction sites: a flood mitigation project near South Duff Ave and an ISU recreation complex east of Jack Trice Stadium. The photo shows severe bank erosion where drainage from the ISU construction site enters the creek. An inspector with the Iowa DNR noted problems with erosion control earlier this spring on the South Duff project. However, if the nitrate spike were linked to erosion, I’d expect to see high phosphorus and low transparency.
Honestly, I’m not sure what’s going on here. It’s not a pattern we’ve seen in previous years.
When interpreting this kind of data, there is a risk of jumping to conclusions and unfairly pointing fingers. In my first draft of this article, I suggested that Coldwater Golf Course was the source of the nitrate and the bank erosion. That was premature.
However, there is also a risk that we will waste time and money on the wrong solutions or the wrong areas if we don’t test water or don’t follow where the data is pointing. It’s clear from this month’s data and many other rounds of testing that water quality impacts are not uniformly distributed across the landscape.
A big thank you to farmers who planted cover crops after this challenging year. Cover crops will hold soil and nutrients in place through the winter and early spring. That could be especially important this year.
After a drought, nitrogen that might normally have been taken up by a high-yielding crop or flushed away by rainfall remains in the soil. That leftover nitrogen could be available for next year’s crop, but only if:
A) we have a dry spring, or
B) farmers have made use of practices like cover crops or nitrification inhibitors that prevent nitrogen losses during the fallow season.
A drought in 2012 following by a wet spring in 2013 led to nitrate concentrations in excess of 20 mg/L in many rivers in Central Iowa. If we have a wet spring in 2021, we could see this happen again. As one scientific paper put it, “weather whiplash drives deterioration of water quality.”
“Weather whiplash” can also help explain the long-term trends I’ve been seeing in the South Skunk River and its tributaries: a decline in nitrate concentrations from 2005-2012, a big jump in 2013, and another decline over the past 7 years. I’ll walk you through my analysis.
Explaining nitrate concentrations in the South Skunk River
Technical details, feel free to skip: This data was collected by the City of Ames just upstream of wastewater treatment plant. The City has monitored the South Skunk River above and below its wastewater treatment plant almost every week since 2003! Flow is measured continuously at a few miles upstream USGS gage near S. 16th St. I’ve summarized nitrate concentrations and streamflow by season (Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep, Oct-Dec). At each step of the way, I apply a linear regression equation and graph the model residuals. Taken together, these three factors explain 59% of the variation. The effects of “weather whiplash” may extend beyond one year, since nitrate from some parts of the field may travel more slowly to streams via groundwater.
In a given quarter, nitrate concentrations in the South Skunk can be up to 10 mg/L higher than the long-term average, or as much as 10 mg/L lower. The following graphs show how much variation is left to explain after correcting for current weather, last year’s weather, and season.
The lowest nitrate concentrations can be explained by streamflow: when the weather is dry and tiles aren’t flowing, nitrate levels in rivers taper off to the background levels seen in groundwater.
The highest nitrate concentrations can be explained by weather over the previous 12 months: a wet period following a dry period will flush out nitrate that’s accumulated in the soil.
After that, there’s still a seasonal pattern independent of rainfall: nitrogen is most susceptible to loss in spring when soils are bare and microbial activity picks up (April-June) and least susceptible when the maturing crop is using up the available nitrogen (July-Sept).
Can some of the remaining pattern be explained by greater adoption of conservation practices in the watershed in the past 5 years? We hope so, but let’s see what happens next spring!
Nitrogen rate management (MRTN) is the low-hanging fruit of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a win-win for profitability and the environment. On closer inspection, that fruit is even juicier than we thought; but harder to reach.
Here’s the paradox of nutrient management that the general public fails to grasp. We don’t know with any certainty at application time how much nitrogen the corn crop will need or how much nitrogen will be left in the soil come July when the crop starts maturing. Corn stalk nitrogen tests and split applications can improve the accuracy of the guess, but farmers still have to guess. If they guess too low, they lose income. So most farmers err on the high side, which means that (all else being equal) more nitrogen will end up in our streams.
We may not know what’s the right amount of nitrogen to apply this year, but we can pinpoint a range that makes the most economic sense across sites and years. In 2005, Iowa State University researchers crunched the numbers and developed an online calculator. A farmer can enter current prices for corn and fertilizer to get the Maximum Return To Nitrogen (MRTN). Above that range, they might get a bit higher yield, but the revenue from those extra bushels doesn’t offset the cost of the extra nitrogen. Applying nitrogen at the MRTN is a rare win-win for profitability and the environment.
Along with cover crops, wetlands, and bioreactors, MRTN was one of the more promising practices for nitrogen outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Still, the authors cautioned that it wouldn’t get us very far by itself. An average field would cut nitrate losses by 10 percent. Since some parts of the state apply less nitrogen than others, universal adoption of this practice would get us a 9 percent reduction in nitrate concentrations.
That modest reduction assumes Iowa farmers currently apply 150 lbs of N/acre on a corn-bean rotation and 190 lbs/acre on continuous corn, a figure the authors admitted were “possibly outdated.” A 2017 survey by ag retailers found that Iowa farmers apply 169 lbs/acre of nitrogen on corn after beans and apply 210 lbs N/acre on continuous corn. I updated Dr. Helmers graph with those numbers and an MRTN based on current corn and nitrogen prices to determine the potential water quality benefit. This low-hanging fruit is juicier than we thought!
And that’s just the average! Inspired by a recent essay by Chris Jones, I read a manure management plan for a field in one of our watersheds. It receives 190 lbs/acre of nitrogen and 146 lbs/acre of phosphorus in the form of liquid swine manure. If that manure could be spread over more acres at a rate of 140 lbs/acre, that could reduce nitrate losses by 31%. If it replaces rather than supplements commercial fertilizer, we could get another 4% cut in nitrate. Manure is a slow-release fertilizer and less susceptible to leaching.
Is that economical? Hard to say. Daniel Anderson reports that liquid swine manure can be moved seven miles and still be cheaper than synthetic fertilizer. In Story and Boone County that might work. Hamilton County has 218 manure management plans, so I’m not sure how far you’d need to travel to find a field not already being treated. Are there changes in processing or additional cost share that would help make it more feasible? I don’t know. No-one is talking about it. But cover crops work equally well. Winter rye grows thicker with fall-applied manure and can scavenge nitrogen that would otherwise be lost.
Unfortunately, neither of those options (MRTN or cover crops) are even suggested as part of manure management plans and the loudest voices in the room are saying livestock producers don’t need to be doing anything differently. Until that situation changes, the widespread adoption of rate management that’s assumed in statewide and watershed-based scenarios won’t happen and we will fail to meet our nutrient reduction goals.