NutrientStar: Taking The Guesswork Out Of All Things Nitrogen

Photo Credit: EDF/NutrientStar
Photo Credit: EDF/NutrientStar

The transparency movement is infiltrating all levels of the food production chain.

Consumers as well as powerful corporate entities like Walmart want transparency on how the food they buy and sell is being produced, while at the same time more and more farmers are demanding price transparency from the retail chain (FBN’s controversial Procurement program comes to mind).

And now, yet another initiative looking to provide transparency within the agriculture sector has been launched.

NutrientStar, still in its relative infancy as of this writing, looks at two often disparaged goods: Nitrogen stabilization products; and software-based nitrogen modeling applications (such as ADAPT-N, Climate’s FieldView Nitrogen Advisor and DuPont-Pioneer’s Encirca Yield Nitrogen Management Service) that purport to, through the wonders of advanced algorithms and aggregated data crunching, help a producer with often-difficult fertilizer management decisions.

Publicly launched the night prior to Commodity Classic down in New Orleans at a French Quarter restaurant reception, the program is backed by an eight-member review panel comprised of Extension researchers, ag professors and independent advisors (University of Lincoln-Nebraska’s Kenneth Cassman and well-known CCA Shannon Gomes, among others). The eight member panel directs the review standards and field trial protocols and, according to the NutrientStar website, assesses nutrient management tools “in an objective, transparent process.” Any panel members with conflicts of interest are barred from participating in the review process on those products.

“Nutrient Star itself is not endorsing or approving or rating any particular product,” program administrator and EDF sustainable ag expert Karen Chapman explains. “The science review panel established our protocols, and they assess the products by how well they achieve Nutrient Use Efficiency (NUE). There are a lot of Nitrogen efficiency tools on the market. We want to give farmers confidence that the tools they purchase will work as advertised.”

Chapman, a Central-Ohio farm girl that blogs for EDF on everything from memories of growing up on her grandfather’s Ohio farm to the Lake Erie Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) issue, is the driving force behind NutrientStar currently, and she graciously took the time to connect with PrecisionAg.com to answer any questions we had about the program.

My first question for her was one I figured she gets all the time. How does that whole “Environmental Defense Fund” name-thingy play when you’re running in Big Ag circles?

“There is often trepidation (about the name) at first, but EDF’s history of collaboration really speaks for itself,” she responds. “We’ve always had very good cooperation from, and all of our ag-related project work is centered on, working closely and collaboratively with farmers. We believe that sustainability can and should help a grower’s bottom line.”

Because really, there is just a TON of field trial data that NutrientStar requests from manufacturers in order to make its evaluations (soil data, application data, rainfall data, etc.), and it’s hard for this author to imagine many handing over a cache of possibly-exploitable information about their products to an outfit with a name like EDF’s.

However, I digress. The name-concern out of the way, we moved on to the nuts and bolts of the program, which Chapman says is driven by the aforementioned NUE metric.

“Yield over N-applied is the definition the review panel uses for (NUE), or in other words, partial factor productivity,” she explains. “That’s where we’re starting from.”

NutrientStar’s launch kicked off with evaluations of Koch’s AGROTAIN and Dow’s N Serve and Instinct II nitrogen stabilizers (the program evaluates these by crop type), as well as the aforementioned ADAPT-N nitrogen modeling program from Agronomic Technology Corp. More reviews will go online later this year.

According to Chapman, ADAPT-N takes soil data, weather data and a farmer’s management data and plugs that into a crop model that then makes nitrogen recommendations throughout the season.

NutrientStar’s evaluation looked at 104 replicated ADAPT-N field trials from 2011-2012 in New York and Iowa, finding that on average the program’s recommendations allowed for an average 37 pound per acre reduction in nitrogen use, a two bushel per acre yield increase and a $30 per acre average ROI.

“We got the ADAPT-N data from Cornell (who originally developed ADAPT-N) and we are actually also doing our own trials on it, and as soon as we get all of that data we will be able to show performance across different management practices,” Chapman explains. “We’re also looking to the future to what other things NutrientStar might help assess. We’re interested in delivering really good information – that’s our main focus.”

Coming soon from NutrientStar are recommendations for where companies might consider locating field trials to produce regionally specific data, based on what the group defines as “agro-eco regions,” which divide up production areas across the country according to soil water holding capacity and climatic zones.

“For some we will be able to show in what agro eco region those on farm trials or small plot tests were done, so you can see on a regional basis how the products performed, because in farming especially we often hear ‘Well, it doesn’t work down here, or this product works here, but not so much over here.’”

Yet there are those that would likely question choosing to go with ADAPT-N over the other choices in the segment based solely on 104 field trials from two states. Skeptics would call that a small sample size, a term that gets thrown around a lot this time of year in NFL Draft player evaluations for prospects that have missed a significant number of their games to injury or other circumstances, limiting the amount of data NFL decision makers have on the prospect. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Adapt-N has been in development for over 14 years, in market for research and calibration since 2008, and is used in 38 states).

Like their NFL brethren, Ag decision makers try to avoid making decisions based on small sample sizes (i.e. five years of yield data is the generally accepted minimum for VRA).

“We’re going to have more data coming in, and this is just the starting point. It’s representative of the kind of data that we’ll be showcasing on the NutrientStar website, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg,” Chapman says. “So far ADAPT-N is the tool that we have the most data on. We need more robust data from tool manufacturers and from field trials to show how products work in the context of the 4Rs, and as more data comes in, we can get more granular.

“And those other companies – Pioneer and Climate Corp. – we’re working on a plan with those companies to assess their products, as well.”

The next step for NutrientStar is to further engage with the ag retail and agribusiness chains, a process that begun in earnest down on the Bayou back in March.

“We see an opportunity for ag retailers and advisors to use NutrientStar,” she says. “It provides grower customers with the best data out there on these tools. As we collect more data, we’re building the program into a valuable source of unbiased, reliable information. We are totally open to working with interested companies, and we are actually looking for some enterprising retailers that would want to be a part of the emerging testing network. So I’ll ask them to please reach out if they are interested in hosting field trials or learning about other aspects of the program.”

For more information on NutrientStar, feel free to visit NutrientStar.org.

UPDATED 4/28: Emailed statement from Steve Sibulkin, CEO, Agronomic Technology Corp.: “We believe Adapt-N has been uniquely forthcoming with its research, competitive trials, etc. in sharing data to deliver on the industry promise of transparency. Our approach encourages comparison and transparency. In an article about transparency, we think that intent/notion is important.”

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