INDIANAPOLIS — Keeping nitrogen and other nutrients on the field and out of water sources is not only good for the environment, but also for farmers financially.

The Indiana On-Farm Network is a group of crop producers who are interested in conserving both financial and environmental resources. They do that through data collection and analysis of different nitrogen management practices.

“It’s a group of growers that use standardized protocols and share data amongst themselves with the goal of really increasing nitrogen efficiency and optimization,” explained Jordan Seger, director of the Division of Soil Conservation at the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

“It really comes down to utilizing the huge amounts of data out there that we’re getting from the fields to better our management when it comes to nutrients.”

Seger said the No. 1 objective is to improve on-farm economics and farmers’ bottom line.

“If we are improving our nitrogen management, we could be lessening nitrogen inputs, which will save us money,” he said.

“Within the groups, we identify the best management to keep nitrogen on the fields for the crop to utilize and produce optimal yields. Then it’s less prone to run off into our waterways. The primary objective is economic benefits, but the secondary objective is environmental benefits.”

Seger described the meeting of business and the environment as a sweet spot. Farmers can have both economic and environmental gains through proper nutrient management decisions.

Several groups of farmers participate in the network throughout Indiana. Each group contains about 10 to 20 farmers.

Not every county has a group, but the network has seen a significant increase in the number of groups participating since its formation in 2011.

“This year, we have 18 groups spread across the state,” Seger said. “We have about 180 farmers participating in the program. Those 180 will enroll about 450 of their fields directly into the program. Those 450 fields directly account for about 40,000 acres of cropland, but the indirect impacts are much greater as farmers implement what they learn across their whole farm”

The farmers who participate are volunteers interested in improving their soil health and conserving financial resources.

Partners from the Indiana Conservation Partnership and other organizations support the network.

“They help contribute resources and manpower to support the program and basically make the program no cost to farmers,” Seger said.

“The data collection, analysis and reports we give back to farmers are currently zero cost to them because costs are covered by a federal grant from the (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) which is matched by Indiana Corn Marketing Council and Indiana Soybean Alliance checkoff funds”

Examples of the data collected include cornstalk nitrate tests, aerial imagery and replicated strip trials.

“We gather field management history, and we actually go and pull cornstalk nitrate tests from all those fields,” Seger said. “We use aerial imagery and GPS to guide where we go in and test. We also do a quite few replicated strip trials.”

Based on the questions a farmer may have about nitrogen, strip trials can be laid out to compare and contrast different nitrogen management practices such as rate, form, timing and placement.

“With strip trials, we can look at yield data and calculate the most economic nitrogen practice” the director said. “We might increase yields with more nitrogen, but did the extra bushels actually pay for the extra fertilizer?”

Seger said the network also can evaluate different forms of nitrogen, both organic and inorganic, different timing and different placement of nitrogen.

The evaluations are farmer driven and are conducted to answer farmers’ questions. All information collected is made anonymous and protected. The farmers determine how their data is used.

During the winter, each group of farmers and project supporters gather to discuss the results of the year’s evaluations. Data gathered on one field is useful, but the learning is amplified when data from many fields in the same geographic area is aggregated together.

“I call it organized coffee shop talk supported by technology and a diverse group of public and private sector partners,” Seger said.

“It’s amazing the kind of conversations we have when we get all the farmers in a room and start going over the information. The aerial imagery alone, we can talk for hours about. It’s a whole different way to see their crops.”

For more information, visit www.in.gov/isda/ofn/about.htm or contact Seger at jseger@isda.in.gov.