Close up photo of green cornstalks growing in a field with blue sky and white clouds above. Close up photo of green cornstalks growing in a field with blue sky and white clouds above.

FFAR Grant Reduces Nitrogen Inputs, Lower Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Ames, IA

  • Soil Health

Nitrogen is critical to plant growth and yields. Soil health practices like cover cropping and reduced tillage can increase nitrogen availability for crops. However, farmers cannot determine the amount of nitrogen provided by these regenerative agriculture practices and must apply additional, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to their fields to ensure crops receive enough of this key nutrient. This additional nitrogen application is costly, contributes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, can negatively impact land and water ecosystems and may not have any impact on crop yields.

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) is providing a $998,784 Seeding Solutions grant to Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to quantify how adopting soil health practices can reduce the need for nitrogen inputs without sacrificing yield. Growers Edge, Iowa State University of Science and Technology, Meridian Institute, Midwest Row Crop Collaborative and PFI are matching the grant with $1,428,849 for a total project investment of $2,427,633.

Soil health practices increase farm productivity, reduce emissions and enhance crop resilience. FFAR recognizes the importance of research that establishes connections between soil health practices and farm profitability, which is imperative to expanding practice adoption. Farmers need scientifically sound economic information to make the best decisions for their land. LaKisha Odom, Ph.D.
Scientific Program Director
Soil Health

To develop that proof, Dr. Stefan Gailans, PFI’s senior research manager, is coordinating on-farm trials in 90 locations across the Midwest to assess whether using regenerative agriculture can meet yield goals, allowing farmers to apply less nitrogen fertilizer. Economic outcomes will be calculated from budgets that compare the costs and returns for the comparison trial plots on each on-farm trial. Changes in GHG emissions will be calculated using Field to Market’s Fieldprint® Calculator.

Additionally, the research team will provide opportunities for trial participants to share their experiences with other Midwest farmers through field days, webinars and conferences. These experiences will also be shared through PFI’s existing cover crop cost-share programs and communications platforms to further encourage the good soil health adoption needed to reduce over-applications of nitrogen. Lastly, the research team will work with farmers and stakeholders to design prototype incentives to support regenerative agriculture products like yield- protection insurance and direct-payments.

“Asking farmers to reduce N inputs, especially to corn, is a tall order,” said Gailans. “This project will create a community of practice for farmers to test and share about their experiences with reducing N application rates.”

Gailans added that in Midwestern row-crop agriculture, reducing nitrogen fertilizer application is a more permanent, reliable and scalable approach to addressing climate change than carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide, because the science is not clear about whether management practices shown to potentially sequester carbon in one region or climate extend to all regions. Moreover, there is no guarantee that management practices that potentially sequester carbon will be maintained in the long-term.

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Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

Connect: @FoundationFAR

Practical Farmers of Iowa

Practical Farmers of Iowa’s mission is equipping farmers to build resilient farms and communities. Practical Farmers of Iowa is an inclusive organization representing a diversity of farmers. Farmers in our network raise corn and soybeans, hay, livestock large and small, horticultural crops from fruits and vegetables to cut flowers and herbs, and more. Our members have conventional and organic systems; employ diverse management practices; run operations of all sizes; and come from a range of backgrounds. These farmers come together, however, because they believe in nature as the model for agriculture and they are committed to moving their operations toward sustainability.