Dr. Paul's Research Perspectives
The world has changed
A look at nitrogen and corn economics.

By Paul Hepperly, PhD and Dave Wilson

editors' NOTE:

As New Farm Research and Training Manager at The Rodale Institute®, Dr. Paul Hepperly has been a regular contributor to NewFarm.org for some time, providing research updates, op-ed pieces, and white papers on topics like carbon sequestration in organic farming systems.

None of those venues do full justice to the range of Paul's experience, however. Paul grew up on a family farm in Illinois and holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology, an M.S. in agronomy and a B.S. in psychology from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He has worked for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, in academia, and for a number of private seed companies, including Asgrow, Pioneer, and DeKalb. He has overseen research in Hawaii, Iowa, Puerto Rico, and Chile, and investigated such diverse crops as soybeans, corn, sorghum, sunflowers, ginger, and papaya. He has witnessed the move toward biotech among the traditional plant breeding community and the move toward organics among new wave of upcoming young farmers. Beford coming to the Rodale Institute Paul worked with hill farmers in India to help them overcome problems with ginger root rot in collaboration with Winrock International.

Now we've decided to give Paul his own column, in which he can report on agricultural research from around the world and reflect on its relevance to The Rodale Institute's research program and to the progress of sustainable agriculture more generally in light of his own broad perspective. Enjoy.

How to contact Paul

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611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530
610-683-1420

June 8, 2006: You may have noticed your gasoline is a bit more expensive these days. Farmers, likewise, are watching their fertilizer costs skyrocket and trying to figure out how they can keep up production levels as the price of their mainstay nitrogen fertilizer jumps off the charts (Douglas Beegle, Expensive Nitrogen, 2006). In standard conventional corn farming, nitrogen fertilizer is a key input. For a long time, nitrogen cost was considered cheap. But as natural gas costs rise, synthetic N is no longer the bargain it was once was (natural gas is a major input for making ammoniated nitrogen fertilizer).

Not only was nitrogen historically cheap, but it packed a wallop in terms of quick crop growth response. But that was then and this is now. Now that nitrogen is not so cheap, how are we going to deal with the changed cost structure? Now that commodity grain prices are stagnant at best, how do we reconcile the spiraling costs of these nitrogen inputs? Now that we know that heavy use of nitrogen depletes the soil and pollutes our waterways, what adjustments are we making? Both the questions and the answers are timely, for the world has changed and we must change with it.

Traditionally, corn fertilizer is either put on up front or split between a starter fertilizer and a side-dress application when corn is knee high. Following fertilizer and lime recommendations given by Ohio State University Cooperative Extension Service in 2003, a farmer would have spent $62 to produce 150 bushel corn on 1 acre. We called TiMac, a large fertilizer dealer in our area, and calculated the cost of that same recommendation today at $132.70. The bottom line is that fertilizer is no longer cheap. It is pretty hard to see the margin you will have with $2-per-bushel corn on a $132.70 per-acre input cost for fertilizer alone.

Experiments have shown that when you put down starter fertilizer—which is typically about 20 percent of the total fertilizer recommendation and investment—you get 80 percent of the crop response. Conversely, putting down layby fertilizer costs you 80 percent of your investment to get 20 percent of the return. Yet most farmers do not use starter fertilizer, as it slows their planting time. Even a starter fertilizer option would cost you about $15 to $37 per acre today. This tweaking can help, but a whole new approach is really what’s needed to lower costs enough to realize any level of profit (profit that is not dependant on price supports and commodity payments; both of which might soon be the stuff of history).

Robert Rodale talked about the value of a farm’s natural internal inputs and their ability to keep costs down as well as regenerate, contributing to a thriving production system that improves as they are used. Using your own resources is the key to getting off the fertilizer treadmill—and related upward cost spiral—and to reinvigorating your prospects in farming.

Before synthetic fertilizer, farmers had traditionally used legumes, composts and manures as their corn nitrogen sources. Here at The Rodale Institute, growing hairy vetch in late summer after wheat allows us to capture our nitrogen for the cost of cropping the winter annual. A sole crop of hairy vetch costs about $30 for hairy vetch seed (30 pounds at a $1 per pound) and about $12 to plant and turn it under. At 2003 levels, growing a vetch crop was about a wash compared to fertilizer nitrogen, but in the current economy it will be about half that of the nitrogen cost alone compared to a conventional approach. Hairy vetch produces up to and exceeding the 150 pounds of nitrogen needed for the nation’s average corn crop of 150 bushels per acre. Additionally, hairy vetch and winter cover crops actually build the soil organic nitrogen supply (not to mention improving soil structure and soil biology).

Our research has shown that you can reduce the hairy vetch seed rate by half by using oats as a nurse crop. By adding a bushel of oats, which will winter kill, you get better fall weed control, you trap damaging soil nitrates, and the spring nitrogen production of hairy vetch ends up the same as with the higher seeding rate. With the oat nurse crop, the total cost of growing this mixture is about $30 per acre—a good cost reduction from $42 per acre for straight hairy vetch. We have shown in our long-term trials that corn and soybean productivity can be maintained under cover-crop-fueled systems at levels comparable to those fueled by synthetic chemistry (namely, petroleum-derived agricultural products).

Because the natural input of cover crops builds soil over time, we need fewer and fewer inputs each year rather than more because our organic matter in soil builds up using this management approach. Our farm has increased 30 percent in its soil-organic-matter base, stimulating three times the microorganisms, which in turn recycle twice the nutrients compared to a fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive input system.

Growing winter annual cover crops has been shown to not only allow cheap nitrogen for corn production but to control soil erosion and nutrient losses that otherwise would occur in winter-fallow systems. As the price of petroleum has increased, so have the costs of herbicides. In our weed-sensitive soybean crop, rye can replace the use of escalating herbicide costs (not only because the herbicides are increasingly expensive, but also because growing resistance to products such as Montanto’s Roundup means application rates are increasing).

With continuing problems with both input cost and water quality issues related to both synthetic nutrient runoff and pesticides, cover crops are the natural and friendly antidote for ailing farm economies and for rising environmental and health problems related to conventional farming systems.

Our farm manager, Jeff Moyer, received $18 per bushel on our cooked organic soybeans for feed meal, $6.50 per bushel on organic feed corn, and $6.25 per bushel on our organic wheat for organic pretzels. In addition to great pricing, we are exceeding our county’s yield averages on all crops we grow, and our crop yields have improved over the years.

Here at The Rodale Institute, our organic agriculture adventure began with a rain of criticism for promoting a production system pundits said could never compete with conventional row-crop agriculture. Our own long-term research, and now that of an increasing number of collaborators, has demonstrated that the pundits were wrong! Last year, Ohio State University researchers showed their organic management was significantly more productive than conventional row-crop agriculture, further confirming our own long-term results. At this point there is no question about competing using organic practices; the better question to ask is why government continues to support dated and damaging agriculture systems that don’t make economic or energetic sense (nevermind the toll they take on environmental and human health).

It is time for farmers to take their futures into their own hands and for our elected officials to support the fundamental changes needed in our agriculture and food system (the latter group can begin by fostering programs on cover crop education and by making a support system available so this important practice can flourish). We can see some progress under way in this arena. Close to home, Penn State University provides a range of information on how to measure the need for nitrogen. This includes soil, tissue and stalk tests and worksheets for crediting rotation histories and for manure application. These tests are useful for conventional, sustainable and organic farmers alike.

With synthetic nitrogen costs at historic levels, this point in history offers the perfect opportunity for all farmers to revise the economics of their production systems and to change what is necessary to maintain viability as farmers.