4R Nutrient Stewardship program shares data to prove value to farmers

The fertile loamy soil for planting with the iconic technology in soil is the essential food of plants.

Launched in 2012, the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program is an innovative approach to fertilizer best management practices that focuses on applying the right nutrient source at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place. While 4R Nutrient Stewardship has been steadily gaining awareness among farmers, agronomists and crop advisors alike, barriers have included the perceived adoption cost and overall return on investment.

Developed as a collaboration of The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), the former International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI), the International Fertilizer Industry Association and Fertilizer Canada, 4R Nutrient Stewardship has a significant presence across the globe. In the United States, TFI’s 4R Advocates farm more than 215,000 acres across 22 states. Successful case studies range from intensive strawberry operations in California to strip-till corn farms in Minnesota, yet cost remains a key consideration for any business looking at adopting a new practice.

Jennifer Martin, Director of Sustainability Communications with The Fertilizer Institute, spoke with SmartTalk at Commodity Classic 2020 about the release of new in-field data and case studies that quantify 4R adoption. The real farmer case studies on 4RFarming.org provide a diverse look at how 4R has helped growers increase yield and overall sustainability while also reducing cost of implementation over time.

Q: How did you come to research and quantify the actual cost of adopting 4R Nutrient Stewardship?

TFI undertook research in 2017 to quantify the awareness among farmers about the 4Rs, to understand their perceptions about practice change, and to test some messages to see what might work. The common thread throughout our research was that cost matters most to farmers when they are thinking about implementing new practices. For TFI, we knew we needed to solve this question to help move the needle in 4R practice adoption. Luckily, we have a broad group of farmers through our 4R Advocate program who were willing to help us understand what it took for them to advance their 4R nutrient management program and also to quantify the in-field benefits they saw as well.

Q: How important is it for growers to see true in-field data like this when they are making their crop decisions?

We knew from our research that the top two sources of information for farmers are their trusted ag retailer or crop adviser and other farmers. And many respondents said they wanted to see how it works for other farmers before they make any changes to their own field. Our ultimate goal is to increase the adoption of 4R practices across the United States, so it was obvious that we needed to get in-field data about the cost benefits of the 4Rs.

Q: What has been the reaction to 4RFarming.org to date? What have you or your team found most surprising?

Since we’re still in the early stages of launching the initiative, most of our surprises have come from the data collection. Our team has been happily surprised by how willing our 4R Advocates have been in opening up their data to us. Once we had a chance to collect the data, we were interested to realize that from farm-to-farm, growers are using a wide variation of 4R practices to see results. There really is no one-size fits all approach, which is why we recommend farmers work with their retail partners or crop consultant on a plan that is best for their operations.

Additionally, we’re noticing that farmers are really happy with the results. And not every farm sees the same results each year. Between weather and other events outside their control, the 4Rs can’t change everything. In one of our case studies, we saw a decrease in cost in one field, but yield was lower than farm average. While it’s not the result we want to see, the farmer is continuing to test what works. This case study highlights the importance of testing small areas of the farm and testing for multiple years.

TFI is a firm believer in 4R practices because they are based on sound scientific principles, but to see farmers successfully applying them is great validation.