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Maryland fertilizer regs leave a bad odor

AgricultureFertilizerChemical Industry

Some of the new nutrient management regulations proposed by the Maryland Department of Agriculture to the Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review of the General Assembly are unworkable in many areas of the state and demonstrate an ignorance of current agronomic science.

One new regulation requires that all applications of organic nutrients be incorporated into the soil within 48 hours while completely ignoring commercial fertilizers. There are several problems with this.

Nitrogen and phosphorous can leach out or otherwise be lost from commercial fertilizers due to heavy rains at least as easily as they are from organic fertilizer (manure). Much of the nitrogen in manure is in complex organic forms that take several years to completely break down and become available.

The very act of incorporating all manure applications would violate the soil conservation plans on many farms, especially in the rolling topography of Central Maryland where my family has farmed for generations. Our conservation plan requires most of our crops to be planted using no-till methods. You can't incorporate nutrients without destroying the many benefits that no-till planting provides, including leaving the soil covered with a protective mulch that helps prevent soil erosion that not only damages the field but also harms the Chesapeake Bay.

Farmers would also be prevented from applying manure to any growing crops such as pasture, hay fields, or growing cover crops, as the very act of incorporating the manure would destroy the crops you're trying to fertilize.

Manure, applied responsibly to nutrient-deficient land, monitored by regular manure analysis and soil testing, is a wonderful source of nutrients and organic matter that increase the productivity and health of the soil. More and more of the latest agronomic research reveals how the soil is a complex mixture of macro and microorganisms and nothing nourishes it better than manure, especially when combined with cover crops. Ideally, manure is applied to a growing cover crop in the spring. The cover crop absorbs nutrients from the manure and is allowed to grow until it's time to plant. The cover crop is then killed and the grain crop is planted no-till into the dead cover crop, which leaves a protective mulch on top of the soil and slowly releases the nutrients back to the soil to be used by the growing grain crop. This method of farming imitates nature's way of recycling nutrients — from the soil to plants which are then consumed by animals with their manure returned to the land and the cycle starts anew. This is good for the soil, good for the crop and good for the Chesapeake Bay.

Another new regulation would require all streams and waterways to be fenced to keep livestock out of them. While this may seem like a good idea to some, consider that 100 years ago, when the Chesapeake Bay was much healthier, there were many times the number of livestock with access to streams as compared to today, along with the thousands of work horses used on farms before being later replaced by tractors. There were a lot less people around back then compared to the millions living in the watershed today. Anybody see a correlation here?

The millions of dollars required to fence out a relatively low number of livestock from thousands of miles of streams and other waterways would be better spent on helping to restore the oyster population. Nothing would improve the health of the Chesapeake more than regaining the natural filter it has lost.

I can only hope that science will prevail instead of emotion and political posturing. The demonization of manure by certain groups is unwarranted, and rules that might make sense in one part of our state could be totally unworkable in another due to the diverse topography involved.

At the very least, manure should be allowed to be applied to growing crops and vegetation in the spring, according to current regulations, without mandatory incorporation which can cause problems of its own.

Mike Clark, Clarksville

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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