BMP challenge focuses on adoption risk

Managing Editor

Adopting new farming practices is often a slow process, especially when farmers are unsure how the practice will affect their bottom line.
To help with that risk, a program started at the American Farmland Trust aims to increase adoption of certain best management practices on farms by covering the risk in profitability of using that practice. It’s called the BMP Challenge.
To entice participants, AFT offered a performance guarantee that if the particular practice didn’t increase net profit, AFT would pay the difference to the farmer.
“It’s a risk-free test drive” of the BMP, said Jim Baird, AFT’s Mid-Atlantic director.
One aspect of the challenge was incorporation of manure. Working with Don Moore at AET Consulting, seven Eastern Shore farmers took the challenge three years ago, incorporating manure on part of their farms.
Since manure incorporation with vertical tillage equipment such as an Aerway or Turbotill is a relatively new practice involving costly equipment, the BMP Challenge comparisons were setup to determine whether incorporation would affect yields. Participants applied the same amount of nitrogen across an entire field.
However, they reduced the amount of commercial fertilizer at sidedress on the acres where manure was incorporated or injected as university research showed incorporation would increase the nitrogen credit due to less ammonia volitization, offsetting the reduction at sideress.
By the third year, 2012, the part of the field where manure was surface applied at the recommended rate was compared to the rest of the field that used incorporation and a reduced application rate at sidedress based on less ammonia escaping to the air.
For the three years, according to Baird, incorporation showed an average increase in net returns by $6 per acre and a nitrogen reduction of 7 pounds per acre.
Overall the farmers used 8,400 less pounds of nitrogen by incorporating.
Baird said the results are not meant to be taken as research data, but as anecdotal evidence from real farm scenarios.
“We let the land grants do the research. We’re about adoption. We want farmers to use it if it works for them,” Baird said. “We’re not starting with the interest of cutting their nitrogen, we’re starting with the interest of making it more efficient and saving their bottom line.”
After talking with five of the participating farmers, Moore reported three of the farmers had since purchased new equipment to incorporate manure.
One is seriously considering it and the fifth has expanded use of vertical tillage to all his crop acres.
According to Moore, “Throughout the entire BMP Challenge process, farmers demonstrated their willingness and eagerness to learn. They want to learn about and adopt new technologies if they make good economic sense.
“They are not willing to risk yield to experiment. This is where the yield guarantee was important to them. In this world of high commodity prices, and inputs that are equally as high, growers are hesitant to entertain additional risk. No one is interested in over-application of nutrients.”
In the midst of the research, Maryland revised its nutrient management rules to require farmers to inject or incorporate manure and other organic nutrient sources into the soil within 48 hours of application.
Grant funding for the incorporation challenge has since ended, Baird said, but he hoped word would spread of how it worked out for the farmers who participated.
“Hopefully it’s going to have an impact on other farmers,” he said.
Another arm of the BMP Challenge that is continuing is in using the Pre-sidedress Nitrate Test.
Baird said often growers will do a PSNT but may not trust what the test suggests as a sidedress application rate for a number of factors.
For many growers, especially dairy farmers raising corn silage, the sidedress application is the last chance to get a crop the nutrients it needs for growth and they may fear cutting the rate too much, greatly affecting yield.
The challenge posed by AFT was to stick to the rate recommended side dress rate on part of the field and compare it to the rest of the field.
Baird said from eight farmers in Virginia who have participated, half saw drops in yield, "but it did save them money in some cases, and in some cases considerably. But there are some issues there."
Baird said in this case, the results with the PSNT challenge so far show that many more factors are at play in determining application rates and the test, while not prized for its accuracy, can be another tool to use.
“We’ve taken to calling it a slippery fish,” Baird said of nitrogen in the soil. “It’s so mobile. It’s not a perfect science.”