Sustaining Ag Improvement

SUSTAIN Program Gains Traction Among Farmer Co-ops, Food Companies

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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SUSTAIN stresses the potential benefits of split applications of nitrogen fertilizer along with using a nitrogen stabilizer. Roughly 30% of corn acres have some form of nitrogen stabilizer applied to them. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer file photo)

ALTOONA, Iowa (DTN) -- This was a busy week for United Suppliers Inc. and its two-year-old sustainability program which focuses on improving fertilizer management as a way to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss and, ideally, improve farm efficiency as well.

The program, called SUSTAIN, was rolled out to another cooperative partner of United Suppliers with a grower education event for Key Cooperative members in north-central Iowa on Tuesday. A day later, United Suppliers announced a partnership with Smithfield Foods to incorporate SUSTAIN in Smithfield's Iowa and Missouri grain-sourcing regions. Smithfield is the first major meat company to join SUSTAIN.

Matt Carstens, United Suppliers' vice president of crop nutrition, is seeing a program he helped pencil out on a napkin increasingly embraced as the food supply chain continues to search for ways to reduce the environmental footprint of crop production.

"Until recently, our industry hasn't put as much emphasis on fertilization as we should have," Carstens said. "It's not just about what the government wants or what Walmart or the food companies want; this is what the consumer wants. I am not saying I like that, but I don't get to make that rule. We've always got to remember that. There's nobody to blame, but this is what consumers want."

With Key Cooperative and its members coming on board, United Suppliers has 30 different authorized SUSTAIN cooperatives in nine states with roughly 400 local sales people who have been trained to work with farmers on the program. Along with Smithfield, United Suppliers is using SUSTAIN with other food companies such as General Mills, Campbell Soup and Unilever. SUSTAIN also joined Field to Market -- another, broader agricultural sustainability group that includes dozens of companies and national commodity groups.

Key Cooperative plans to get its sales people out talking about the program this spring and then begin enrolling farmers in SUSTAIN later in the summer.

Bob Finch, a farmer from Ames, Iowa, and president of the Key Cooperative board of directors, said the board sees SUSTAIN as another tool to integrate with precision agriculture methods. "A lot of it is about recording what we're doing and then start tweaking it," Finch said.

Like others at Key, Finch also added that the board and management wanted to ensure any fertilizer optimization program placed a high priority on being economically feasible for farmers.

"Farmers have to make a margin," Finch said. "With the documentation part of this, it has to prove itself to be economically viable and it has to prove itself to be environmentally viable."

Additionally, at least some companies may offer premiums. That hasn't been a major focus yet, but there are a few opportunities.

Maree Deventer, sustainability coordinator and merchandiser for ADM, told farmers at the Key Cooperative event that Unilever is paying a 10-cent premium for soybeans delivered to ADM in Iowa that would go to make Hellmann's mayonnaise. About 500,000 acres are enrolled in ADM's program, which requires farmers to use the Field to Market field print calculator. The goal of the Field to Market program is to set a baseline for crop inputs used per unit of yield or acre and to develop metrics for continuous improvement in efficiency. Deventer noted ADM has one of the largest sustainability enrollments.

"Since prices have started to drop, it's no surprise we've seen interest in the program skyrocket," Deventer said.

Key Cooperative's main market counties also are slightly east of the watersheds and counties targeted in the Des Moines Water Works litigation. The utility is suing upstream counties and drainage districts over high nitrates that have caused Des Moines to spend millions of dollars scrubbing out the nitrates from its water system. Des Moines Water Works blames farmers for failing to adequately manage fertilizer applications. The lawsuit loomed over the SUSTAIN meeting as farmers recognize risks posed by the case.

No grower wakes up hoping a percentage of their nitrogen leaches away, but various studies have shown that more than 50% of nitrogen is lost due to leaching or volatilization. A 2002 study led by the University of Nebraska analyzed 55 fields across north-central states showing nitrogen losses ranging from 75-150 pounds off fields every year. Carstens cited different studies from DuPont Pioneer showing farmers may lose $50 an acre in fertilizer losses while USDA projects as much as $420 million in nitrogen fertilizer is lost to the Mississippi River every year.

"So we have every reason to figure out how we can get 50% down to something less," Carstens said, adding it would likely be impossible to get to zero. "But getting it to something less than it is today is an achievable goal we can make progress on. Over time we can continue to find ways to reduce this number."

SUSTAIN stresses the potential benefits of split applications of nitrogen fertilizer along with using a nitrogen stabilizer. Roughly 30% of corn acres have some form of nitrogen stabilizer applied to them. Carstens said that percentage needs to increase.

Nitrogen application and yield data provided by SUSTAIN show split applications of nitrogen using 150 pounds instead of 170 pounds might cost $12 an acre, or 15% higher, due to the use of nitrogen stabilizers, fuel and machinery usage. The split application, though, not only reduces nitrogen loss but could translate into as much as 15 bushels higher yield, based on early USDA analysis on split applications.

"That's what USDA said the average yield increase is by doing that," Carstens said. "It's more than $12 an acre, even if we don't get 15 (bpa) and get something more reasonable. Let's call it eight to 10 (bpa). You are still getting more than what the cost is."

Along with split fertilizer applications, another component of SUSTAIN includes using modeling done through the Adapt-N program, a web-based tool that is partnering with Key and United Suppliers to model out fertilizer recommendations for particular soils and fields. Adapt-N can analyze where a field may have lost yield or added costs because of over-application.

SUSTAIN also champions other growing conservation practices to help not only with fertilizer management, but soil erosion. Key and other cooperatives in the program are encouraging farmers to experiment with cover crops.

Consumers have more power in the marketplace and their demands for more sustainable production practices are now filtering down to the farm.

"We think the SUSTAIN initiative really fits like a hand in a glove to being good stewards of the resource," said Jim Magnuson, general manager for Key Cooperative. He added, "We believe that SUSTAIN can be a critical linkage between the consumer and the producer."

Magnuson and others at Key Cooperative stressed the importance of not only the economic component, but the relationships United Suppliers has with Field to Market and groups such as Environmental Defense Fund. EDF's role brings credibility with consumers about the overall benefits SUSTAIN can bring to the environment.

"We're really pleased with the approach of the Environmental Defense Fund in recognizing that things in production agriculture need to be science-based and they need to be economically sound," Magnuson said.

More information about SUSTAIN can be found at its website:

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Chris Clayton