NItrogen Smart program changes farming minds and fertilization practices

By Brad Carlson
Nitrates originating from agricultural situations have been a focus of water quality work in both surface and ground water in Minnesota for the past couple of decades.  The Nitrogen Smart educational program was developed in 2016 to teach farmers how nitrogen behaves in the environment.  It proactively addresses issues related to fertilizer application practices with the ultimate goal of seeing an increase in voluntary best practice use.  Increasing farm profitability through efficient nitrogen use is a co-objective of the Nitrogen Smart program. 

Nitrogen Smart is a partnership between University of Minnesota Extension, which developed the curriculum and conducts the education, and the Minnesota Corn Growers Association who funds the program and helps promote attendance.  Extension Educator Brad Carlson is the point person providing overall leadership for the program.  State Soil Fertility Specialist Dan Kaiser oversees large portions of the content and teaches a majority of the sessions with Brad.  In her previous role, Senior Research and Extension Coordinator Ann Lewandowski helped develop the original presentation materials, before turning it over to Phyllis Bongard, an Educational Content and Communications Specialist, after the first couple years.  Extension Educators Anne Nelson and Greg Klinger have also helped teach at several sessions.  


A farmer in Blue Earth County applies urea to a growing corn crop in June. Sidedressing nitrogen fertilizer minimizes nitrate loss to the environment by delaying application until the crop is going to use it.

The mantra of the program is that attendees are not there to be told what to do.  Instead, they are there to learn the information necessary to determine best practices themselves.  The University of Minnesota recommendations for nitrogen fertilizer use date back to the early 1970s, and Best Management Practices (BMPs) for nitrogen were released in the mid-1990s.  The BMP recommendations are region specific and include options for different practices based on an individual farmer’s situation.  However, optimum management practices can vary from one year to the next due to climatic and site conditions.  Nitrogen Smart addresses this by discussing the basic science of the nitrogen cycle, University of Minnesota recommendations, and the when, why and how to modify practices based on specific conditions. 

In 2018, the original fundamentals program expanded to include an on-line version and in 2019, the first Advanced Nitrogen Smart program was offered.  The Advanced Nitrogen Smart sessions focus on a single topic, rather than on broad science.  This past year’s program focused on manure management, with the plan to add new topics and curriculum each year. Mellissa Wilson, State Manure Management Specialist, worked with Carlson and Bongard to develop this curriculum. 

To date (November 2019) there have been 885 attendees for the Fundamentals session, 63 for the Advanced program and 51 have completed the on-line version.  Attendees complete an extensive evaluation that includes information about their farms.  Based on this evaluation, it is estimated that attending farmers run approximately 456,000 acres of farm land.  Nearly 95% of attendees say they would recommend attendance to others, while over 90% say they will continue to attend Nitrogen Smart offerings in the future. 

An outcomes survey is conducted six months after the program to determine how practices have changed.  To date, over 30% of attendees have reported that they lowered their application rates by an average of just over 30 lb. N/acre.  Another 20% say they have adopted the use of a nitrification inhibitor when making fall applications, (a practice that research has shown to decrease N loss under some circumstances).  An additional 15%+ have stopped making fall applications altogether. 

Over 10% say they have stopped using urea fertilizer for fall applications.  While still considered acceptable on the western side of the state, this practice has come under scrutiny based on recent U of M research. 

Plans are currently being made for Nitrogen Smart meetings for the winter of 2020.  Partnering with a local sponsor such as a county Corn Growers Association, Soil and Water Conservation District, or other entities working on water quality issues has been a successful model that drives attendance.  Requests are currently coming in and it is anticipated that the majority of the trainings will be scheduled by mid-December 2019.  In addition to the Fundamentals program, and the Advanced session focusing on manure, a new Advanced curriculum titled “A Deep Dive into the 4Rs” will be offered.  This new Advanced Nitrogen Smart topic will address the specifics of application rate, application timing, and fertilizer source, coupled with site specificity.  More information on dates and locations for upcoming meetings or on-line training.