As federal and state government begins to take action to monitor and prevent fertilizer runoff into watersheds — especially in the Great Lakes region — some farmers see strip-till as preventative measure.

At the recent National Strip-Tillage Conference, Kenton, Ohio, strip-tiller Brian Watkins told attendees that soluble phosphorus ending up in local waterways is an ongoing concern in his area. This is one reason why he transitioned from no-till broadcast application of fertilizer to deep-placement with strip-till in recent years to minimize nutrient loss.

“In the mid-1990s, we saw an increase in soluble phosphorus washing into some of our local rivers and lakes,” Watkins says. “It’s an unintended consequence of conservation tillage and no-till, but there’s much more stratification of nutrients because we’re not plowing those nutrients under.”

The top 2 inches of soil then have such a high level of phosphorus that a certain amount, when the soil is saturated, will dissolve, he says.

The state of Ohio is stepping in to address the problem and conducting a 3-year study of surface water runoff from several local farms to analyze phosphorus and nitrates. The state also passed legislation this past spring which requires certification to purchase or spread commercial fertilizer.

Rather that wait idly for additional regulations, Watkins says one option farmers have to combat the soluble-phosphorus problem is placing the fertilizer below the surface with strip-till.

Watkins adopted this practice 2 years ago, making a fall pass with a 60-foot Progressive toolbar and 24 mounted Yetter 2987 high-speed Magnum fertilizer coulters to apply potassium and phosphorus using a Montag dry fertilizer air-delivery system.

Watkins bands the fertilizer about 4 inches below the surface and then applies nitrogen with a spring strip-till pass. He admits it’s not a perfect system, because even a concentrated band of phosphorus can be vulnerable to solubilizing.

But it’s more economical and environmentally friendly than a broadcast surface application — especially in his area.

“We’ve got to be thinking about surface application of fertilizer and whether it makes sense,” Watkins says. “If it’s solubilizing and going off the farm, we’re losing it and throwing money away. How to handle phosphorus in this environment is going to be a ongoing challenge and we’re attempting to address the problem through our strip-till system.”

How are you protecting and preserving phosphorus in your strip-till operation? Share your story with me at (262) 782-4480, ext. 441, or send me an e-mail at