Fertilizing for the Future: Hardwick Planting Company tests alternative methods for nutrient management

Kyle Peveto  |  1/3/2018 7:34:14 PM

Kyle Peveto

The whitewashed walls of the Hardwick Planting Company’s office in Tensas Parish near Newellton abound with history. Handwritten 19th-century letters documenting the 200-year-old Somerset Plantation’s story are mounted next to a window where tenant farmers once received their pay.

Instead of housing a museum, the office is a base of operations for a modern farm growing cotton, corn, soybeans and other crops, using the latest technology and progressive methods.

There, two generations of the Hardwick family work to improve all aspects of agricultural production, but they focus intensely on improving nutrient management, the practice of efficiently fertilizing the soil to grow a profitable crop while also protecting the environment.

“The approach that we’re moving toward nutrient management is a little more complicated than I ever imagined it would become,” said Jay Hardwick, who has run the farm with his wife, Mary, since 1981. “But its benefits seem to be real and achievable.”

That new multi-faceted approach includes investigating an innovative fertilizer source, planting cover crops to add more nutrients to the land and using up-to-date technology, such as tablet computers and satellite mapping, to decide which fields are in need of certain nutrients.

“There are some technology tools out there that can help you make better decisions,” said Mead Hardwick, one of Jay and Mary’s two sons who farm with them. Mead is a Southern Methodist University business school graduate who returned to join the family farm partnership in 2014. “We don’t get too hung up on using technology just for the sake of having some whiz-bang thing out there. If it’s not going to help us, we’re not going to use it,” he said.

Pursuing Progressive Techniques

The Hardwicks have embraced progressive production and conservation methods, and they are leaders in pursuing responsible techniques to manage soil nutrients. In the past they have removed hundreds of acres of land from production for restoration, and thousands of acres of timber on the property have become habitat for the Louisiana black bear.

More than 10 years ago Jay Hardwick installed grass filter strips between some fields to slow fertilizer and chemical runoff from fields near streams, and a project with Ducks Unlimited added wetlands and a potential future water source to the farm.

Over the past 15 years Jay Hardwick has used variable-rate technology when applying fertilizer, applying different amounts of nutrients to fields depending on the needs of each soil. It is a departure from typical fertilization methods, which Hardwick calls “the blanket approach.” In that method farmers apply a consistent amount of fertilizer to each field.

“The blanket approach was, ‘Here’s what we think the crop needs for this range of yields,’ and you put it out there and hope it was available (for the crop to use),” Jay Hardwick said.

Farmers have always known some areas of their fields had different nutrient needs, Jay Hardwick said, and it made sense to spread out risk by spreading out fertilizer applications. However, they often lacked the resources to vary the amount of nutrients applied to different sections of farmland.

“Frankly, part of the old system of blanket approaches is because we didn’t have the tools or the technology or the computer software programs to implement what people understood needed to be done,” Jay Hardwick said.

Fertilizer’s Effect on the Environment

That blanket approach has received part of the blame for a growth in low oxygen levels in some American waterways, a condition called hypoxia, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus from farm runoff and other sources, encourage the growth of algae in waterways. As the algae decompose, they consume oxygen in the water, causing “dead zones” absent of aquatic life, according to the EPA.

“The hypoxia is a growing and a major concern, and I think agriculture rightfully gets a lot of the blame for it,” said Marshall Hardwick, Mead’s brother, who returned to the farm to join the family partnership after earning a master’s degree from LSU’s School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences in 2013. “But there are lots of farmers and producers who are doing the right thing but don’t get the credit they deserve.”

While hypoxia remains an issue, using fertilizer strategically can also save farmers money.

“We can do better from an environmental standpoint,” said Mead Hardwick. “But also, the margins have gotten so thin and prices are so low that we have to find a better way to apply the inputs we choose to purchase. If we can get more out of it by choosing to put it over here, we can make the more productive areas of the field even more productive and maybe try to manage through those lower productive areas. That’s the theory.”

Using Maps, New Technology

To help decide how much fertilizer to apply to each field, the Hardwicks consult multiple sources.

First, they scan soil type maps created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service. They look at elevation maps created by their tractors’ GPS units to get a sense of which of their fields have water-holding low areas or ridges that tend to dry out, and they compare both to crop yield maps.

“You start to treat those areas a little differently,” Mead Hardwick said. “You might spend a little less money on seed in that particular spot. If three out of five years it’s going to get too much water, I don’t want to put too many nutrients there. The alternative is leaching and runoff.”

From there they pull soil samples from various fields, using an iPad tablet computer to pinpoint the exact location and organize the samples and test results. In the fall they consult these results to plan fertilizer needs for the spring.

“That is going to tell us what is tied up and what is going to be available,” Marshall Hardwick said. “That helps us work with our fertilizer provider to find out what we need to put in the ground for the crop.”

When it comes time to fertilize the fields, Mead Hardwick can create digitized maps and load them onto their tractors’ computers, which use GPS to regulate how much fertilizer to apply to each section.

That variable rate technology also applies to solid fertilizer. For two years the Hardwicks have experimented using poultry litter, a mixture of chicken manure and debris pulled from chicken houses, on troubled spots.

Investigating Other Nutrient Sources

While more expensive than liquid fertilizer, Marshall Hardwick said, the litter could be more cost-effective over the long term. It builds up organic matter in the soil and helps it hold water longer. Jay Hardwick compares it to “compounding interest.”

“Higher organic matter acts like a sponge, so to speak, to absorb not only rainfall but to maintain water in the profile a lot longer, so maybe that will cut down on the number of irrigations,” Jay Hardwick said.

They expect to see the greatest gains from chicken litter in the next two years as the organic matter builds. Some fields with high ridges scorched by the sun have already seen improvement, Marshall Hardwick said.

This winter the Hardwicks will also plant 1,000 acres of cover crops, a mixture of legumes and cereal rye. The legumes will add nitrogen to the soil, while the rye produces a fibrous root system to hold soil together.

Using chicken litter and cover crops to add nutrients to the fields represents a long-term approach, Jay Hardwick said. Rather than just add more liquid fertilizer each year to replace the nutrients taken to grow crops, they are using multiple methods to add nutrients.

“We want those materials to stay in the field and build upon them rather than lose them and then have to regain them,” Jay Hardwick said.

Fertilizing for the Future

This holistic approach requires a multi-year commitment from farmers, Jay Hardwick said. Farmers working their own land must invest in their future crops, he said, and tenant farmers interested in these methods need a landlord who is on board.

“These things have to fundamentally be in place or be worked toward for these kinds of systems to have the greater opportunity for success, or they become a showcase, a one-time event, and it is hard to see the benefit,” he said.

Producers must become leaders in nutrient management, Mead Hardwick said. If agricultural producers cannot work to reduce hypoxia in waterways, he said, the federal government could eventually step in.

“The last thing you want as an industry is to have someone come in and tell you that you have to change,” he said. “We need to be able to fix this on our own. It’s pretty hard to drive the car if your hand’s not on the wheel.”

Kyle Peveto is the publications editor with LSU AgCenter Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.

(This article appears in the fall 2017 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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Jay Hardwick, who has run the farm at Somerset Plantation since 1981, examines a soil map, provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, of the farm’s acreage. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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Marshall, left, Mead and Jay Hardwick examine soil maps at a field on their farm near Newellton in Tensas Parish. Jay runs the farm with his wife, Mary, and his two sons, Marshall and Mead. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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Cotton waits for harvest in the fields of the Hardwick farm in Tensas Parish near Newellton. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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Mead Hardwick analyzes elevation and crop yield maps and soil samples before deciding how to fertilize each field. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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Marshall, left, and Mead Hardwick stand near a windmill and pond that are part of a conservation project originally begun with Ducks Unlimited. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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Mounds of poultry litter await spreading on the Hardwick farm. The mixture of chicken manure and debris from chicken houses is a new fertilizer the Hardwick family is testing. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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A filter strip of native grass and bermudagrass separates two fields on the Hardwick farm. Filter strips are designed to stop fertilizer and chemical runoff from agricultural fields from getting into waterways. Photo by Kyle Peveto

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