4R Ag Retailers in Action

John Musser is the Business Technology Manager for Stephenson Service Co. in Stockton, IL.  He’s been in the ag retail sector for 36 years and received his CCA designation in 1994—the second year of the CCA program.  John recently achieved the 4R Nutrient Management Specialist certification and serves on the IFCA Board of Directors.  
John’s been a strong advocate of the N-WATCH™ soil nitrate testing program, and has been doing these soil tests in Northwestern Illinois since the program began in 2013.  Everything he’s learned about nitrogen management from N-WATCH and N-Rate Trials becomes part of the conversation he has with his farmer customers.  “The farmers definitely have a better understanding of nutrient utilization and loss mechanisms than they had five years ago, and there’s no longer an assumption that 'it will be ok' if they don’t take the goals of the nutrient loss reduction strategy to heart in their farming operations.”
John is a proponent of a systematic approach.  “Every aspect of the crop must be managed in order to assure optimum nutrient utilization, it’s more than just fertilizer management.  Seed selection, timing of planting, nutrient management and crop protection all play a role” he says.  He sees farmers making the kinds of management decisions it will take to address nutrient losses, but is realistic about the timeline of change.  “In a farmer’s lifetime, if he starts farming at age 21 and retires in his 60’s, he gets to plant about 40 crops to sustain his business; and in many of those early years the decisions don’t all belong to him or to her, there are multiple decision makers.”  So when farmers are barraged with messages urging them to change their practices, i.e. to adjust nitrogen rates, change application timing, plant cover crops etc., these are major decisions because there aren’t many do-over opportunities.”  John urges policy makers and the non-farm public to keep this in mind and be patient when it comes to expectations of rapid change.  There’s no question that great things are happening with nutrient management, it just takes some time and the changes must sustain the farming operation in order to also sustain the environmental and societal goals.  
In five years, John believes the industry’s dedication to the 4Rs and to on-farm research will result in agronomists such as himself being able to more confidently make a nitrogen recommendation for each individual field based off yield, soil tests, soil structure, historical knowledge of previous management decisions and outcomes and the data feeding the MRTN.  He believes that nitrogen must be applied early and in-season and cautions against too much late-applied N.  “If the conditions are not there later in the growing season for the nitrogen to get to the plant roots, then it’s just left to remain in the upper soil profile and possibly be lost.”  

“There are definitely consequences for what we do, or what we don’t do.  And just because your farm can’t be seen from the road doesn’t mean that what happens on that farm doesn’t matter.  The more we all understand that responsible practices need to happen on every acre, the greater our chances of success in terms of improving productivity and reducing nutrient losses” - John Musser

Fred Butt is a Sales Agronomist with United Prairie in Crescent City, Illinois.  He is a Western Illinois University graduate with a degree in Agronomy, and has been working in the central and eastern parts of Iroquois County since 1988. Fred is an active IFCA member and is also a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA), a member of the second ever class to receive their CCA 25 years ago.

This past winter, Fred noticed that at many of the meetings that there was an increased focus on 4Rs and water quality. With the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy having been released this past year, there has been an immense effort made by IFCA and others to get the message out on the importance of implementing practices to reduce nutrient losses.  The other thing Fred noticed was the positive response from several farmers in his area. “After hearing Jean Payne’s presentation this winter, there were several growers who attended that meeting who got the message. They all spoke on how we all need to be thinking about what we’re doing in the field and the potential consequences.”  

One of the main changes that was obvious to Fred was the willingness of growers to start using N-Serve in the spring for the first time.  Despite the challenge of some farm managers not wanting to spend the extra money or the unknown of not having used a N stabilizer before, many of the growers Fred spoke to were still more than willing to make the investment to protect their nitrogen. As Fred says, “There has been pretty good awareness about trying to match their nitrogen application to their expected yield goals, and they are willing to go the extra mile to protect that applied N.”  Many of the producers made several passes with a nitrogen stabilizer either with their pre-plant ammonia or top dress urea this spring. They are eager to see the results later in the year, but in the meantime are just happy that they are doing something to help keep the nutrients in the field. As Fred put it, “They are willing to put in the extra work to try and make a positive impact both financially and environmentally.”  

United Prairie has also taken the initiative of participating in and hosting its own research trials. Jeff Brown, Agronomy Manager, has been working on several projects regarding nutrient management. United Prairie conducts research on its concept farm in Sadorus, Illinois, where it is also participating in its second   N Rate Trial. They also have several producers that they work with who are participating in N Rate Trials on their own farms. Within these N Rate Trials, they are also using N-WATCH to determine the amount of ammonium and nitrate in the soil in the various N rate strips.  
“IFCA and Illinois Ag Retailers have done a great job of addressing the issues at hand and working towards improvement.  My philosophy is that if somebody has a question, try to answer it as honestly as you can. All of us have to try and reach out and somehow tell our stories. We need to continue to do the right thing as an industry.”   – Fred Butt

Bryan Fairfull is the Agronomy Marketing Manager for M & M Service Company located in Carlinville, IL and he’s noticed the industry’s increased focus on sustainability.  It’s not just about meeting yield and productivity goals, but how these goals can be achieved using proper nutrient management practices.

“When I first came on board in 2010, M&M had already started putting on post applied urea as part of a split nitrogen program.”  He also says that they’ve been using variable rate technology (VRT) since the 1990’s to focus on ensuring the optimum amount of P and K applied based upon soil maps.  With VRT, they also feel they have found methods to better utilize the nitrogen in the DAP they spread in the fall.  They are active in the IFCA Keep it 4R Crop Program, and participate in the NREC funded Nitrogen Rate Trials to help better understand the best N rate to use on a specific customer’s field. They also have N-WATCH sites that they use to inventory and track plant available nitrogen in the field before, during and after the growing season and promote the MRTN (maximum return to nitrogen) calculator for rate and economic guidance regarding nitrogen and are looking weather information as well. 

M&M also has their own research plot, called Solutions at Work, in Litchfield.  Here, they apply new products that are coming out, testing them with a variety of nutrient management practices before recommending it to their customers. Bryan feels that it is important to for M&M to have a hand in some of the research being done. As he puts it,  “There is so much money being invested based on guesses.  Using the 4R’s and research, we can ensure that we can use the best scientific methods possible when applying nutrients in the field.”

When asked how their customers have reacted to the sustainability movement M&M has incorporated over the years, Bryan’s answer was very clear. “They love it. They’ve taken off with it. It used to be common practice to just throw an extra 20 to 50 pounds of N on back in the day just to be sure. But with the cost of inputs and the realization that we are losing nutrients, the whole 4R concept of applications of fertilizer have taken off tremendously.” 

With reactions like these from their customers and the faith they have in the 4R’s, it is no surprise that Bryan took the 4R pledge for the IFCA 4R Code of Practice.  “It’s the right thing to do," he said. "All retailers in my opinion need to take the Pledge.  We need to be the trusted agronomic providers for our growers, both economically and environmentally.” 

Regan Wear, CHS-Shipman & IFCA Board Member, manages the agronomy department at CHS in Shipman, Illinois and is also an IFCA Board Member.  He has been working with the certified crop adviser sales team at CHS since 1986.  Over that period he has seen tremendous changes in production and technology in the Corn Belt.  Regan employs 4R strategies so that his customers can care for both the crop and the environment.  These practices have evolved from the days of just spreading 200 lbs of DAP and 200 lbs of potash every other year to VRT prescriptions based on multiple year yield analysis of crop removals. With these techniques they can put the right rate of the right product at the right place at the right time in the field.  While this requires spending a lot of time with customers collecting, cleaning and analyzing their data to prepare the P&K prescriptions, Regan and the CHS team create nutrient application maps to develop a variable rate seeding prescription working with the customers and their seed supplier.  Regan also sees a good increase in farmers splitting up their nitrogen applications for corn. He’s proud of his customers who have adopted the 4Rs—they clearly see the need for research on fertilizer technologies and techniques that help grow a robust healthy crop while making sure the plant uses all nutrients that are intended for it.  Regan was among the first to take the 4R Code of Practice Pledge and he encourages all IFCA retail members to do the same.  “Illinois agriculture must reduce nutrient losses and if we all do our part and adopt a 4R approach on every acre, we can avoid regulations and litigation like we are seeing in other states,” he says, "let’s keep it that way: take the 4R pledge!”

Kevin Guinan, Agronomy Salesman with Brandt Consolidated in Williamsville, IL is a big believer in the 4Rs and has seen the benefits first-hand.  Having worked in ag retail since 1984, he’s seen major changes in how his customers manage their nutrients.  He’s a big proponent of variable rate application with fall applied nitrogen and N-Serve and he relies upon the results of the Brandt Research Plots to guide his recommendations.  He advises his customers to reduce their fall N rates, and make up the rest of their N rate budget with a planting time application of nitrogen.  Kevin believes placing the nitrogen right into the seed strip has helped tremendously (the “right place” 4R).  He also encourages soil testing every 2.5 acres for P and K and prepares a nutrient management recommendation that is customized to the soil type and the farmer’s individual operation—no more “blanket” approach to nutrient application, Kevin says. 

Jerry Harbour, Prairieland FS, is a veteran in the retail fertilizer industry and is a trusted Certified Crop Adviser for his customers in Sangamon, Mason and Menard counties.  Jerry tells his customers that there are three main ingredients for a successful crop: N (nitrogen), P (phosphorous), and K (potassium).  But Jerry says those ingredients won’t help unless combined with three other ingredients:  Water, Air and Sunlight.  “By carefully managing N, P & K within a 4R system, we can better manage environmental conditions that can lead to nutrient loss and channel those nutrients into the crop:  but it does take management and commitment to right source, right rate, right time, right place principles.”  In tough economic times, it can be easy to stand on your wallet, but the 4Rs have clearly demonstrated that managing nutrients in a systematic approach is an investment that pays significant dividends both economically and environmentally.  “I’m very proud to be part of these efforts in the Lake Springfield and Lake Decatur watersheds; farmers have embraced and utilized the 4Rs because they work.” 

Will Glazik is a Crops Consultant with Crop Production Services (CPS) working out of the Melvin, IL facility, providing agronomic recommendations and services to farmer customers in Ford, Iroquois, McLean and Livingston counties.  Will’s customers are increasing the number of acres receiving VRT DAP (diammonium phosphate) and potash applications.  VRT application rates are based on soil tests, but Will takes it a step further and incorporates yield data along with the soil test to show the true value of VRT to the customer at harvest.  He is also participating in the NREC study that is evaluating P & K removal rates for crops, and sending grain samples in to UI for evaluation.  Using VRT and ensuring fertility recommendations based on soil tests, yield, and crop uptake of nutrients are all critical parts of a 4R program. 

Todd Wibben, Crop Specialist at Evergreen FS in Maroa, IL spent this past year working with farmers in the Lake Decatur watershed on managing their nitrogen as a system of split applications.  Todd is aggressive when it comes to encouraging his customers to use the MRTN (maximum return to N) calculator.  He explains to farmers the importance of getting as much value as possible out of the nitrogen applied.  Todd found the N rate trials very useful because they reveal that the optimum N rate can be completely different from one field to the next. N-WATCH also helps tell a story of how nitrogen moves through the soil, and can show the farmer how different rates applied relate to N availability to the crop throughout the season.  Like many retailers and crop advisers, it is Todd’s ability to gain the farmers’ trust to try something new that is key.  The participation of farmers in trying something so different, and seeing the promising results, has the potential to encourage more farmers to participate in the 4R program and re-evaluate their nitrogen management practices.  


Kevin Nelson, Precision Agronomist for Northern Partners Co-op (NPC) in Mendota, IL, is a life-long Ag Professional.  A Certified Crop Adviser since 1994, Kevin has seen a lot of changes—for the better.  One major change Kevin has witnessed (and that he and NPC played a major role in) has been the adoption of 4R practices.  “Five years ago, almost all fall anhydrous was full rate with N-Serve.  Now, upwards of 80% of NPC customers are going with only a half rate of nitrogen in the fall, plus N-Serve”, Kevin stated.  The rest of the nitrogen is being applied in the spring via herbicide pre-plant or side-dressed.  With the always unpredictable Illinois weather, this “spoon-feeding” approach can be pivotal in reducing nitrogen loss.

 This change in farmer perspective is an encouraging sign to Kevin.  As he notes, “We at NPC have been working on fertilizer efficiency for a long time, purchasing our first strip till bar in the early 1990’s - so this is nothing new. But putting it into a 4R perspective is new, and helps with the importance of the message to farmers” he said.  “When the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy was announced, NPC agronomists paid close attention to the practices being discussed in the strategy so we could share this all with our customers.”  Kevin believes that the long-term answer for overall sustainability, nutrient efficiency and the health of the field exists in many of the practices the 4R Code of Practice exhibits. NPC has taken the IFCA 4R Code of Practice Pledge and Kevin himself will be taking the 4R exam to become 4R certified this upcoming February.


Are you a 4R Retailer in Action?   Share your story with IFCA By emailing details to Jean Payne: jeanp@ifca.com.