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Agronomic Services — News Release


Farmers link environmental stewardship with profitability

MONROE — Parks Helms and Everette Medlin have discovered that environmental stewardship and economics can go hand in hand.

Acting on the advice of N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Regional Agronomist J. Ben Knox, these two Goose Creek Community farmers are using a lot less fertilizer these days and still making a profit.

Helms and Medlin have adjacent farms comprising thousands of acres of corn, wheat and soybeans. "Other growers may make a little more yield," Helms said, "but the bottom line [profit] is what counts."

"Knox has shown me how to be more profitable through nutrient management and use of fertility indexes," added Medlin. "I'm much more profitable and environmentally conscious."

Knox showed both men how they could apply less fertilizer and still come out ahead by using the agronomic rate recommended on a current soil test report and shooting for reasonable yield expectations based on soil type.

Tradition and circumstance have sometimes led farmers to apply more fertilizer than their crops really need. Many follow a fertilization program that they know has produced good yields in the past, regardless of what a soil test report says they need or don't need. In recent years, they have often supplemented commercial fertilizers with poultry litter.

Looking at soil test reports from Union County, Knox recognized that many corn fields do not need additional phosphorus or potassium. He also suspected that extra nitrogen may not always be required either. To drive home his point, he convinced several growers to plant test plots on their farms.

Knox conducted a field trial on Medlin's farm in 1993 and 1994 and followed up with additional tests on Helms' farm in 1999 and 2000.

"It was Ben's idea. I just went along with him," Helms said. "I'm trying to save money and I figured if I could apply less nitrogen, I'd save time and labor as well."

Several fertilizer treatments were chosen for comparison. One plot was fertilized only with poultry litter. The other plots received poultry litter plus different rates of commercial nitrogen fertilizers.

Results so far are promising and show that application of poultry litter alone is economically justifiable under normal circumstances. On average, yield increases that come from applying extra nitrogen do not offset the cost of the fertilizer.

In corn and soybeans, fertilizer can easily account for 25 to 30 percent of a grower's cost. Economically, it is a critical component. If it is not actually needed, then it is a waste not only of money but also of time and labor.

Normal production practices call for poultry litter to be applied before a crop is planted. "When additional nitrogen fertilizer is applied at planting, there are a lot more steps involved," said Helms. "Farmers have to stop about every eight acres to refill hoppers with fertilizer. If a grower only has to put out seed, he can go for about 20 acres without stopping. That's a savings and a convenience."

"Ben has worked with me to lower my fertilizer inputs. I cut my phosphorus and nitrogen down dramatically. I didn't think that was possible," Medlin said. "Historically my land has had high phosphorus and nitrogen indexes, and I wanted to maintain those levels, but Ben showed me that wasn't environmentally sound."

Excess fertilizer nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus, have the potential to pollute groundwater and waterways if they are not used by the plants. To be economically sound and environmentally safe, growers should apply only as much fertilizer as a crop can actually use. That is what is known as an agronomic rate.

Medlin said he appreciated Knox's approach to suggesting changes in his production practices.

"If someone just tells me that something will work, it isn't enough. But if someone else says that it will work, reinforces statement with fact, and demonstrates how it will work, then I know it will work," Medlin explained. "That's the good thing about regional agronomists — they're specialists. When it comes to crop fertility issues, they know all the angles."

Knox was raised on a farm in Rowan County and knows firsthand the problems farmers face. He has been advising them as a NCDA&CS regional agronomist since 1985 and has earned their respect. Based in Mt. Ulla, he serves an area that includes Cabarrus, Davidson, Davie, Iredell, Mecklenburg, Rowan, Stanly and Union counties. He can be reached by phone at (704) 278-9414 or by email at

The Field Services Section of the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division has 14 regional agronomists located throughout the state. These agronomists are available to visit or consult with growers in their regions who need help taking agronomic samples, adjusting fertilizer programs, pinpointing nutrient deficiencies or toxicities, identifying nematode problems, or interpreting agronomic reports. For more information or the name of the regional agronomist assigned to your area, visit the Agronomic Divisions Field Services website at, or call J. Kent Messick at (919) 733-2655.


Last Update July 16, 2009


NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division, Colleen M. Hudak-Wise, Ph.D., Director
Mailing Address: 1040 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1040
Physical Address: 4300 Reedy Creek Road, Raleigh NC 27607-6465
Phone: (919) 733-2655; FAX: (919) 733-2837

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