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Research and study abroad highlights of SIU career for soil science

May 29, 2017, Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Ben Westrich, a plant, soil and agricultural systems major from Crab Orchard, got into research his first year at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He wanted to tackle a big problem: nitrates from fertilizer leaching into the water system.

“Farmers are more aware of this problem than any other group, I think,” he said. “Farmers want to be proactive about it and find solutions -- preferably before stringent regulations are set in place.”

Having grown up in farming, Westrich was familiar with fertilizers and problems with fertilizers. But it was a seminar with SIU alumnus Howard Brown, director of nutrient management and environmental stewardship for Growmark, that the concept really hit home.

Westrich took his enthusiasm for problem solving into the then-fledgling i2i program. At that time, the research project was a semester. Now, renamed the PotashCorp Executive i2i Pathway to Excellence, the program lasts an academic year. Westrich is a two-time participant.

For his first project, he took on the common practice of applying diammonium phosphate (DAP) fertilizer in the fall. Farmers apply DAP fertilizers as a source of phosphorous in the fall because the phosphorous stays with the soil over winter. It’s one less step in the spring, when farmers don’t want delays during optimal planting time.

DAP fertilizers also contain 18 percent nitrogen. Westrich said many farmers feel that added nitrogen is an extra boost for their fields. However, the nitrogen doesn’t last through the winter. It seeps into the ground water or it runs off into waterways.

Westrich applied these nitrogen-laden DAP fertilizers and nitrogen to barren test fields in the fall, and took soil samples every month until spring planting time, with cores taken from 0-12 inches and 12-24 inches. He tracked the nitrogen levels and found that it moved down through the soil profile. By the end of the study period, he was unable to find nitrogen in even the deepest of his core samples.

“My test plots were barren, so I know it wasn’t weeds or cover crops using the nitrogen. It was leaching down through the soil to the water table,” he said. “There is no additional benefit to applying nitrogen in the fall, and it may in fact be detrimental to the environment.”

His recommendation is simple: farmers in Southern Illinois and areas with similar climate patterns should apply nitrogen-free phosphorous in the fall, and apply nitrogen only in the spring.

He presented his findings and his conclusion at the 2016 joint annual meeting of The International Agronomy, Crop Science, and Soil Science Societies of America in Phoenix, Ariz.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “The whole research experience was great preparation for graduate school.”

Not that it was always loads of fun -- for example, struggling with frozen ground while taking core soil samples in the winter. He wasn’t crazy about statistics either, though applying what he’d taken in a classroom directly to his research made it easier to like.

Westrich said he appreciated that the i2i program put him in contact with industry professionals. In fact, he worked with industry mentors approximately as often as he worked with his SIU faculty advisor, Rachel Cook – which is one of the benefits the program is designed to accommodate.

This summer, Westrich will repeat an internship at Syngenta. His first internship was crops-and-research-based; this one will focus on sales and marketing. He’s excited about the opportunity, and it fits in nicely with his plans.

And Westrich is a planner. He took a heavy course-load in his first three years as a student, adding agribusiness economics for a double major. He is far enough ahead in course load that he’ll spend the first semester of his senior year in a study abroad program in Sydney, Australia at the International College of Management. He hopes to apply some of the business skills he’ll learn to his future agriculture career. Also, he hopes to learn to surf.

“I’ve always wanted to go abroad,” he said. “I never thought I’d be able to do it. I’m excited to have the opportunity through SIU.”