Nitrogen is a vital element for plants. Unfortunately, farmland is often in short supply of it. Though 80% of our air is made of nitrogen, atmospheric nitrogen isn’t usable for plants. Instead, they need nitrates, which they take from soil.
Nitrates occur naturally from decomposing plants and animals, animal waste, rainfall, and even lightning. However, farming techniques such as tillage and planting the same crops year after year drain nitrates from the soil faster than they can be replaced. These actions also weaken soil structure, reducing water retention and increasing runoff. Because nitrates are very soluble, runoff further strips them away from soil.
To combat this cycle, farmers have long relied on synthetic nitrate-filled fertilizers. In fact, the first synthesized nitrates date back to 1909. The introduction of synthetic fertilizers helped the farming industry grow on a massive scale, allowing it to provide food, supplies, and materials well beyond local markets.
This rapid expansion and reliance on synthetic fertilizers, however, has had some consequences.
The Problem with Synthetic Fertilizers
Currently, 12 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer are applied to the US farmland every year. When soil erodes and water runs off farmland, much of this nitrogen, along with other additives like phosphorus, end up in local water supplies. This results in a number of problems including unnatural algae bloom, damage to native wildlife populations, contamination of local water supplies, and more.
Not only are humans and wildlife impacted locally, but excess nutrient deposits can contribute to large scale phenomena such as the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition to contaminating water supplies, synthetic fertilizers can increase nitrous oxide emissions. This greenhouse gas is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Even as the industry fights to reduce carbon emission, nitrous oxide could quickly negate this progress.
Solving the Problem
Reducing nitrogen pollution isn’t a simple task. Any farmer knows how powerful of a tool synthetic fertilizer can be. That’s why, in addition to controlling the use of fertilizers, there needs to be an emphasis on improving soil health and reducing runoff. Together, these actions can reduce nitrate pollution and nitrogen emissions while allowing farms to thrive.
Strategic use of synthetic fertilizers can combat waste and runoff. In addition to closely monitoring how much fertilizer is applied, farmers can schedule when its applied to avoid rainfall as much as possible. This helps reduce both water contamination and the creation of nitrous oxide.
Reduced tillage and no-till farming help improve overall soil health and structure, reducing both runoff and the need for synthetic fertilizers.
Another way farmers are combatting runoff is with buffer strips. Buffers not only help reduce runoff, but they can protect against wind, provide wildlife habitat, improve soil health, and more. With the new CP-43 – Prairie Strip practice, farmers can establish buffer strips under the Conservation Reserve Program.
By converting just 10% of their field into native prairie strips, farmers can experience a 44% reduction in water runoff, a 95% reduction in soil loss, a 90% reduction in phosphorus runoff, and an 84% reduction in nitrate-nitrogen runoff.
Land enrolled in other CRP can see as much as a 95% reduction in nitrogen runoff.
Whatever CP you enroll in, you can expect to see an improvement in soil health, an increase in native pollinators and wildlife, and cleaner water supplies. Just make sure you buy your CRP seed from a reputable company. At All Native Seed, we’ve been developing and perfecting our seed mixes since 2003. This has resulted in the highest purity and germination rates available.
Click here to browse our seed offerings. If you would prefer to have someone handle seed purchasing and establishment, our parent company can help. FDCE provides full-service CRP solutions that include buying CRP seed mixes, seed planting, herbicide application, documentation, and report submission for cost-share reimbursement.