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Farmers rethink nitrogen’s impact on high country at Colorado Farm Show

Kayla Young | Editor
Farmers gather around Jim Cheatham to ask about the impact of nitrogen on the national park.
Kayla Young |
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Early Warning

For more on the Rocky Mountain National Park Early Warning System or to sign up, visit http://www.rmwarningsystem.com.

While Rocky Mountain National Park’s alpine tundra may feel far removed from life on the plains, this delicate ecosystem endures the direct impact of urban and agricultural communities on the Front Range.

That was the message during the first morning of the Colorado Farm Show at Greeley’s Island Grove Regional Park, as panelists appealed to crop farmers and dairymen to reconsider their environmental footprint and the impact of nitrogen emissions. The panel looked in particular at ammonia nitrate, a nitrogen and ammonia compound resulting from vehicle exhaust, fertilizers and energy production, among other sources.

Jim Cheatham, air resources specialist for the National Park Service in Estes Park, explained that while the entire state is impacted by such emissions, the effect on the alpine varies drastically from low-elevation areas. The same nitrogen that farmers seek in their soils can create devastating effects in the high country.

Natural weather patterns make Weld and Larimer counties a prime source of such emissions, explained moderator Bill Hammerich, executive director of the Colorado Livestock Association. Air ripe in ammonia and nitrogen that settles into the area is then carried to the high country by precipitation.

As of 2013, annual deposits of nitrogen from rain and snow in the park averaged about 3 kilograms per hectare, or 2.47 acres, Cheatham said. Naturally, this value would range around 0.2 kilograms.

A healthy balance would come by cutting the current level in half, he said. That value has been set as the emissions goal by 2032, which will require a widespread collaborative effort, including agriculture, drivers, energy companies and government, the panel said.

With increased ammonia nitrate, the park has observed greater algae plant growth, stress on the forest, greater susceptibility to pests and plant composition change.

While ammonia nitrate comes from many sources, including cars, agriculture plays an important role.

Panelists encouraged farmers not to feel unfairly targeted in the discussion but rather recognize the benefits they can bring to both themselves and the ecosystem.

Hammerich said when the park began bringing this message to producers in 2007, when the nitrogen deposition reduction program began, the conversation was often tense. The goal today is to find a win-win solution that benefits both farmers and the park.

Brock Faulkner, a Colorado livestock consultant and Texas A&M professor, appealed to farmers by explaining when nitrogen is emitted into the air, that is a loss for them as well.

“When you look at the value of nitrogen as an input — we’re talking about crop production — for the value of a ton of nitrogen in silage, you’re looking at a price of $2,800. It’s not a trivial input,” Faulkner said. “We want to find things that help us capture the value of our input dollars. … The more we can increase our nitrogen use efficiency, the better it is for our bottom line and the less it is being volatilized in the park.”

Mark Sponsler, the panel’s closing speaker and Colorado Corn’s executive director, explained that farmers should evaluate opportunities to manage their inputs even better than they already do.

“Our guys haven’t stayed in business for the last four or five decades by being careless or inefficient with fertilizer. … Nevertheless, there are opportunities for us to do better,” Sponsler said.

He pointed to urea fertilizer as a common source of nitrogen emissions from both cities and farms. As agricultural areas have declined, cities have boomed, turning to urea as an easy route to grow green lawns.

“What is the nitrogen fertilizer most commonly applied to urban landscapes, to yards, to golf courses, to parks? It’s most commonly urea because urea does not cause a burn effect on the grass,” Sponsler said. “What is the most volatile nitrogen compound you can use on a land or beet crop or barley? It’s urea. We can’t be blind to that fact in these conversations.”

For farmers interested in better managing their inputs, the panelists encouraged them to participate in the park’s pilot program, the Rocky Mountain National Park Early Warning System. By voluntarily signing up, producers are informed of high-risk days, when nitrogen emissions are most likely to reach the park. This allows operations to evaluate their practices and consider applying fertilizers or stirring compost on different days. In this first year, warnings impacted 15 to 27 producers, Faulkner said. The greatest number of notices were sent out to Weld and Larimer counties, totaling 10.

By evaluating how producers use this system, researchers hope to get a better grasp on how to improve management practices.


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