Farmers and water quality in Minnesota: “On the right track and ready to take it to the next level”

 Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A packed auditorium in Morton last Wednesday demonstrated that farmers, and the crop consultants and farm businesses that serve them, are interested in water quality. University researchers and agriculture agency workers made a good showing as well, all enthusiastic about farmer interest in managing nutrients and soil to help achieve cleaner water.

It was the 2012 Nutrient Management & Efficiency Conference, organized by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) and sponsored by MDA, Minnesota Ag Water Resource Center, University of Minnesota Extension, USDA-NRCS, Minnesota Corn Growers, Minnesota Soybean Growers, Minnesota Crop Production Retailers, Minnesota Independent Crop Consultants, Agrium, Mosaic, and Nutra-Flo.

“Farmers in Minnesota are on the right track when it comes to nutrient management and water quality, and we’re ready to take it to the next level,” said farmer Doug Albin, who raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa in Clarkfield, Yellow Medicine County. He was one of several hundred farmers in the audience. The daylong seminar offered a mixture of reports on research and assessments of what is happening on the farm. Albin said the overall effect left him feeling energized about farming and hopeful about the future.

A series of presenters from academia and private industry offered the latest information about keeping nutrients and soil in place, and helping crops optimize use of these inputs through techniques like banded placement, and stabilizers that act like a kind of time-release to “meter out the nutrients just at the right time so plants can use them,” Albin said.

“We’re showing our interest in this kind of practical approach,” said Albin. “We can improve our operations and improve the bottom line and help the environment at the same time.”

In the morning, Warren Formo, director of Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center, offered a review of all the research aimed at assessing the farm impact on water quality, and improving water quality results. This was followed by a panel discussion featuring crop consultants and farmers conducting a conversation about innovative techniques for improving nutrient management. The afternoon featured three different sessions: nutrient management, nutrient use efficiency and water quality.

Prof. George Rehm, director of Minnesota Discovery Farms program, was able to share the first year’s results in this farmer-driven quest for information about how soil and nutrients flow over the land. So far, eight farms have joined the program with sets up monitoring equipment to measure the levels and the movement of nitrogen, phosphorous and soil particles on their farm fields.

“This was very good basic information for producers that laid out the concerns about nutrient use and water quality and what we are doing to address those concerns,” said Tim Radatz, a research specialist for the Minnesota and Wisconsin Discovery Farmers projects.

Minnesota Discovery Farms has eight participating farms located in Chisago, Goodhue, Stearns, Blue Earth, Wright, Renville and Kandiyohi counties.

Rehm discussed first year data from three farms, in the Chisago, Goodhue and Stearns locations.

“The timing of runoff for this past year happened mostly during the snowmelt period in spring, because we had such a large snowpack,” said Radatz. “The sediment loss numbers were pretty low, which is a function of good management practices that reduced losses. Later in summer and the fall, the weather dried up so much there wasn’t enough rain to generate runoff. It’s important to stress these are one year results, and we need multiple years to really show what is happening.”

Minnesota Discovery Farms is hoping all eight cooperators will choose to stay in the program. Its application process ends March 1, and the program could add two or more locations. Ultimately, they would like to reach between 12 to 15 locations, to give a good representation of the diverse agricultural regions in the state.

(Go to www.mawrc.org to read the 2011 Minnesota Discovery Farms Annual Report, or to apply to join the Minnesota Discovery Farms network as a cooperator).

Other highlights in the water quality discussion included Brad Carlson’s overview of nutrient and soil loss and preventive approaches, as well as Jeff Strock’s review of results with an innovative approach called conservation drainage.

“Brad Carlson gave a good overview of the concerns with nitrogen, pesticides and soil erosion, as well as ways to limit losses out of tile drainage systems,” said Radatz. “Nitrogen and nitrate loss through the tile lines is a concern for local waters, but even more so for the Gulf of Mexico because it plays a role in the hypoxia issues they are dealing with. Surface water runoff is where we see phosphorous loss into streams and lakes, and that is what drives growth of algae in our lakes.”

Among the most promising ways to limit loss of soil and nutrients is the conversion of open tile intakes to French drains–the intake is placed several feet below the surface of the field and a funnel area is created out of pea rock, which effectively shuts soil out of the tile line.

“The research shows French drains are effective for removing sediment compared to open intakes,” said Radatz.

Jeff Strock, an expert with the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate talked about conservation drainage and water quality benefits for tile drainage. Strock has managed research into this method for a number of years at the Southwest Research and Outreach Station in Lamberton.

“There was good discussion about continuing the research to find out how effective these techniques are,” said Radatz. He explained, “Conservation drainage uses gate-type structures that can be put on tile outlets. The gates have baffles that can be raised or lowered to keep the water table higher in the non-growing season, but then lower the water table when is time to plant and raise crops. The baffles can be used to do a kind of sub-irrigation where the farm operator can manipulate the water table to allow roots access to soil moisture without getting drowned….It’s a new concept. Farmers are becoming more aware of it, but it is very new. We have four or five years of data. Farmers would like more info about how it is going to work, how it will affect their operations in particular. It’s also important to realize that this conservation drainage isn’t effective on highly sloped fields—it requires fields with less than one percent of slope.”

Other concepts like terraces, grassed waterways and the creation of holding pools with metered drainage can effectively address more hilly crop land.

“It was a good day,” said Albin. “The positive attitude that farmers have got about farming and about making conservation an everyday part of the farm is really great to see. The conference was a day for enthusiasm for agriculture. Farmers are coming in and finding out that what we are doing is okay, but maybe we can do it even better. Crop consultants and agency people heard from the farmers, yes, we want to do these things, but don’t stand in our way–create a system that makes it easy for farmers to participate and do what’s right for their farm and for the environment.”

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