Mike Zwingman previously was an agronomy research and development manager for the precision ag team at Central Valley Ag Co-Op in York, Nebraska. We sat down with him then to talk about his work at CVA and the challenges his customers face with managing nitrogen nutrition in their crops, both for improved performance and environmental impact.

Q: Tell us about Central Valley Ag.

MZ: Central Valley Ag is a co-op in Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa. We’re a farmer-owned cooperative with more than 60 locations. We’re a full-service agronomy business with precision ag services, full-application services, crop scouting, all the fertilizer and crop protection products and seed needs that any Nebraska, Iowa or Kansas farmer could have.

Our business model is really in that customer service group. We want to serve our growers as best we can with top-notch, world-class service by embracing the cooperative spirit to bring value to our members every day.

Q: What are the challenges your farmers face when it comes to nitrogen management?

MZ: It’s the third largest line item investment our grower makes. We have cash rent, seed and then nitrogen, which is also the highest risk investment they make based on loss. If they lose it, we get penalized in yield and if they overinvest or put too much nitrogen on, they really waste a lot of money and don’t get any yield out of it.

It’s really a trick for our growers to manage that number without being wrong. We’re working on new systems with our growers every day to help manage that better.

Q: What losses can farmers incur with the failure to manage nitrogen properly?

MZ: This year, particularly, we’ve had some warm soils around Nebraska, even through the winter. We’re subject to a lot of nitrates being in the soil today from some fall anhydrous applications or some earlier spring applications. We’re converting that nitrogen really fast, and now we’re getting moisture and growers are at a higher risk for loss.

When we first lose nitrogen, we lose that nitrogen investment. So for every pound of nitrogen they apply, say they’re spending 20 cents a pound, we lose 20 cents right there off the top. But then, if you lose a bushel of corn for every pound of nitrogen, you’re losing three dollars or three and a half bucks depending on where the market is; so now we’ve lost almost four dollars an acre investment for every pound of nitrogen loss. It’s really our opportunity to help them manage that number and mitigate that risk of loss as best we can to drive their profitability in a tough economic time.

Q: Has farmer awareness of nitrogen loss potential – and how it impacts economic loss – increased in recent years?

MZ: Yes, but we’re better at measuring it. A lot of years, we might lose some nitrogen early, but our soils are fairly forgiving. We mineralize some nitrogen late, so there might not be a loss on the yield side. We’re better at modeling nitrogen loss and where it’s ending up. We’re better at measuring it throughout the soil in real time.

Our growers are becoming more aware of where that nitrogen lives and actually how much of it lands in their crop. We talk a lot to our growers about pounds per bushel of nitrogen, not necessarily pounds per acre. Because when we start talking about pounds per bushel, we can really start driving and finding efficiencies on their investment.

Q: How can proper management of nitrogen affect water quality?

MZ: We sit on the largest aquifer in the United States, over the top of the Ogallala Aquifer. Right now, we’re sitting in the middle of the Platte Valley in Nebraska, so water quality is really key to these growers. There is regulation, and we’re paying for some of the sins of our fathers, some of the things we didn’t know and did that would end up with nitrates in the groundwater. We want to make sure that problem doesn’t get any worse.

Our growers are really sensitive to how they manage their nitrogen from a loss standpoint. They’re really getting better and better every day with using things like split applications, improving their placement, or using some of the enhancements or protection products to really protect that nitrogen investment across the season, mitigate losses and improve water quality for generations to come.

Q: What are some of the local challenges and issues you’re seeing where water quality is concerned?

MZ: I think you’re going to see us start to use soil health and soil quality to help us manage water quality down the road, but we’ve just been so much better at measuring it. And a lot of it is our consumers. The Platte River Valley feeds into a lot of municipalities in Nebraska.

We’ve just become more aware of what the impact is on nitrogen loss into our drinking water because we’re just better at measuring things. We’re better at quantifying and qualifying what our water’s like, but I think our growers are really fit to make up some distance. They’re really getting more agile on time to build and meet the need of a growing consumer base that’s more knowledgeable about what we do out here. The tools today are better than ever before, so now it’s about how do we implement those tools in that toolbox to fit the grower’s needs.

Q: Farmers are providing an end product to consumers – food, fiber and fuel. Is there a growing sense that they’re also responsible for providing safe water for their communities, while protecting natural resources?

MZ: Yeah, one of the things we talk about with our growers is protecting their license to operate. What that means is we know what our direct impact on our consumer is from a food standpoint. But now to keep regulatory bodies at bay and to keep consumer groups happier, as they become knowledgeable about where their food sources come from, we need to be out front on some of these problems and be completely better managers.

Really, I talk to our growers about unlearning everything we know about nitrogen and relearning it in the scope of the new tools and new information we have today to make leaps and bounds of changes in the near future.

Q: How can farmers further address this in the future through nutrient applications and other business practices?

MZ: With the digital age of farming we’re in, [we have] the ability to map applications, almost to a per-row basis in some cases. We can go out and we can better document what we did. Then through the modeling tools that we have available, whether it’s any one of the tools on the market today, we can better see what happened to nitrogen throughout the year.

With enhanced testing from pre-season, to in-season, to post-season, [we] really find out where nitrogen ended up. Did it end up back in the soil, is it stuck in the soil and how much of it ended up in the grain? [This helps] to really get a full view of what ended up happening to the nitrogen throughout the year and how that affects our management in the future.

Q: Farmers are concerned about the economics of their business as well as farming efficiently and sustainably, but the global economy has changed things since our grandparents farmed. What will the next generation of farmers be focused on?

MZ: Every one of us here who works at CVA has a connection to agriculture. It’s a legacy to us. I come from a family farm, most of our other agronomists come from a family farm and our farmers come from the farm families and communities they belong to. The legacy of taking care of the soil and passing on something better to the next generation than what we got is truly and deeply defined in our growers today. They’re better at doing things today than they were twenty years ago, when I started, or even thirty years ago when I was a kid.

I think that kind of progression is just going to keep going as we have newer technologies at our fingertips and understand more of the interaction between soil, water and the crop. We can find efficiencies by making things more natural than they were before or more balanced than they were before.