Why No Fall Fertilizer?

The Lower Loup NRD Board of Directors continues working on the issue of rising groundwater nitrate levels in parts of the District. To combat nitrates getting into the District’s water resources where it becomes a serious threat to the health of constituents – the Board is proposing a rule change to prohibit fall application of commercial nitrogen fertilizer.

   The median nitrate level in Nebraska has doubled since 1978 and continues to climb. High nitrate levels in drinking water have been linked to pediatric cancers, and Nebraska has some of the highest rates of pediatric cancers in the United States.

   The fall application of commercial nitrogen fertilizer has become tradition on some Nebraska farms. If conditions are dry after harvest, it can be convenient for the producer to knock out that chore before the snow flies. But that leaves nitrogen in and on the ground – for 6 months or longer until it is needed – with no plants to use it.

   As the fertilizer remains in the soil unused, precipitation can sweep it into waterways. The nitrogen that doesn’t run off can sink into the soil column beyond where next spring’s crop roots can absorb it, which allows the chemical to creep increasingly closer to groundwater aquifers.

   That unused nitrogen is a lose-lose for everyone: the money spent by producers to purchase and apply it is wasted (and more fertilizer is potentially needed later), and the nitrogen eventually ends up in the water supply where it puts everyone’s health at risk.

   “Putting more emphasis on soil sampling would allow producers to determine how much nitrogen is already in their soil,” said LLNRD Water Programs Specialist Jason Moudry. “This would allow them to apply no more than the plants can use, while reducing the possibility of excess nutrients escaping past the root zone and ultimately ending up in the aquifer.”

    Restricting application of commercial fertilizer to spring and summer (when the crops need it) would reduce the possibility of it running off or leaching before the crop can use it. It makes better economic sense, is more efficient for producers, and it reduces the risk to groundwater aquifers, surface water, and municipal water supplies. Most importantly, by reducing the amount of nitrates getting into our water, we take a positive step toward preserving the health of our children and everyone living and working within the Lower Loup Natural Resources District.

   Public meetings about this and other proposed rule changes will take place Jan. 20 in Genoa, and Ord and Broken Bow on Jan. 26. Call the Lower Loup NRD at (308) 728-3221 for more information.