by Kelly Shenk
Have you ever heard of the “4R’s?” It’s a new buzz in agriculture that’s all about farm efficiency and productivity. 4R’s stands for putting the RIGHT nutrient source on a crop, at the RIGHT application rate, at the RIGHT time, and in the RIGHT place. Farmers often refer to the 4R principles as “precision agriculture.” Whether you call it 4R’s or precision agriculture — I call it “Getting it Right!”
I had a great opportunity to see first-hand what all this means on a Delmarva farm. I met Jonathan Quinn, a fourth-generation grain farmer in Kent County, Maryland. Within minutes he took out his iPad and started showing me data – lots of data – weather patterns, crop yields, fertilizer application rates. It was clear to me that every decision he makes on his farm is driven by this data.
He told me about a technology he tested on his farm recently. He used a drone to collect data on crop vigor which allowed him to determine what areas of the field needed additional nitrogen fertilizer. He was able to spot an area in his field that had leftover nitrogen in the soil from a previous spinach crop. Knowing this allowed him to adjust his nitrogen application rates. When you talk to any farmer, they will tell you that they don’t want to waste fertilizer. And any time they can save on fertilizers and increase their crop yields – it’s money in their pocket.
Jonathan sees his work with precision agriculture going hand-in-hand with protecting the environment. He told me, “I don’t want to waste any inputs as far as fertilizer and chemicals. And I’m doing it to protect the Bay, protect the environment. I like to fish and crab and I want it to be there for my kids and my grandchildren to be able to do the same thing I did.” This is a sentiment I hear from so many Delmarva farmers who have grown up the Chesapeake Bay.
When you boil it down, this Delmarva grain farmer is using technology and data to maximize farm efficiency, increase productivity and save money. And guess what? When farmers put fertilizers on the crop at the right rate, time, and place, it means less fertilizers are left over to run into our streams or leach into our groundwater. So whether you call it the “4Rs” or “precision agriculture” or something else … I call it “Getting it Right!”
About the author: Kelly Shenk is EPA Region III’s Agriculture Advisor. She works with farmers to achieve healthy, well-managed farms and clean water. EPA helps fund the Delaware-Maryland 4R Alliance’s precision agriculture work through National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants.