Growing Knowledge

Read the latest insights from our experts as they cover agronomy issues that matter most to you and your operation.

Five Things Farmers Are Doing to Protect Waterways

Tyler Steinkamp
Regional Agronomist
August is designated as Water Quality Month, and it’s a time to recognize what farmers are doing to keep our water clean. Here are five practices that some farmers are already implementing.
Conservation buffers
Conservation buffers are commonly seen in fields to prevent sediment, nutrients and pesticides from reaching water bodies. Examples of effective conservation buffers include filter strips, grassed waterways and field borders. The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that properly installed and maintained buffers have the capacity to remove up to 50 percent nutrients and pesticides, and 75 percent or more sediment compared to a non-buffered field.
Cover crops
Cover crops are a growing trend among farmers who are looking for ways to reduce erosion and improve soil health. Cover crops help retain nutrients in the soil and can help with water-holding capacity. The University of Missouri reports that cover crops may reduce soil erosion by 90 percent and pesticide and nutrient runoff by 50 percent.
Conservation tillage
The main goal of conservation tillage is to keep soil in fields instead of allowing it to move off-site to nearby water bodies. Any tillage system that leaves at least 30 percent of the soil surface covered with crop residue after planting to reduce soil erosion is considered conservation tillage.
Precision agriculture tools and technology
From tractors with GPS to prescription planting, farmers today have more accurate and efficient ways to do business. Precision technology allows farmers to strategically target inputs where they’re needed at the correct time. Technology can help diagnose in-season plant stresses, and treatments can be made exactly when and where they are needed, reducing the runoff potential of nutrients and pesticides that could impair waterways.
Bioreactors are a relatively new and progressive tactic being explored by some farmers to help protect waterways. The premise is fairly simple: divert nutrient-rich drainage water from tile lines to a wood-chip-filled basin at the edge of a field. Native soil bacteria within the basin use the carbon from the wood chips as food and nitrogen from the wastewater for respiration. The bacteria convert runoff nitrate to a gaseous form that returns to the atmosphere. Iowa State University reports that research shows bioreactors have the potential to remove 15 to 60 percent of the nitrate load in tile lines per year. Some states offer financial assistance for the installation of bioreactors.
These are just some of the ways that farmers are using old and new methods to protect waterways. Research shows that even though yields have increased over the years, water pollution from agricultural activities has decreased due to diligent conservation practices.

Slow the Flow with Buffer Strips

Darrin Roberts
Regional Agronomist
Here in Minnesota we’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about implementing buffer strips in agricultural land as a way to help protect surface waters from pesticide, nutrient and soil runoff. If you’re wondering about the benefits of buffer strips or are ready to implement them on your farm, here’s some background information to get started.
Common Sense Conservation
Buffer strips are small areas of land or strips of land that are permanently vegetated within or around an agricultural field to mitigate the movement of sediments, nutrients and pesticides from farm operations to surface waters such as rivers, streams, and lakes.
Nutrients that easily bind to soil particles, like phosphorus, move from fields to surface waters as runoff. Streams, rivers, and lakes become enriched with these nutrients and algae grows more quickly, depleting oxygen for aquatic life. Buffer strips help capture nutrients, preventing them from polluting water sources.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that properly installed and maintained buffers can remove 50 percent or more of nutrient and pesticides and 75 percent of sediment from agricultural runoff. An added benefit of buffer strips is reduced flood damage to crops.
Plan Buffers Before Planting Season
Buffers should be planted at the appropriate time for the species selected, and when there is adequate moisture for germination and stand establishment. Planning buffer strips before planting agricultural fields may save time and money on seeding and inputs, since this land won’t be in production. In addition, government programs have specific guidelines for completion, so it’s best to begin early in the season.
To get started, meet with your local crop advisor or government agency that supports conservation planning. There may be specific buffer design requirements you’ll need to consider to earn financial incentives from government programs. Buffer strips typically range in size from 20 to 120 feet wide, depending on field characteristics. Deep-rooted grasses and native plants intercept runoff effectively and can minimize erosion. In flat areas where wind is a problem, trees and shrubs can act as a windbreak to prevent the erosion of topsoil.
Keys for Buffer Maintenance
Once you’ve got your buffer strip established, it’s important to properly maintain it. Here are some tips to keep in mind:
  • Inspect grass buffer strips periodically and reseed any eroded areas.
  • Prescribed burns and mowing can help with weed control until native vegetation is well established. Your local soil and water conservation district can provide recommendations.
  • Periodic grading of the buffer strip may be needed, depending on the amount of sediment deposition.
  • Adequate stand densities of the seeded species should be maintained, while controlling undesirable weed species.
  • Limited livestock grazing may be appropriate, as long as it is controlled to avoid erosion. 

3 Things Conservation and Seed Placement Have in Common

Joel Wipperfurth
Minnesota-Based Agronomy Advisor, Winfield
Walking fields and training your eyes to see opportunities for yield is what I call being “calibrated”.  Once a farmer or agronomist’s eyes are calibrated, they can spot patterns and problems either up close, or from the road at 55 mph. 
Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Agren, a small business focused on precision conservation in Iowa. I asked the founder/CEO Tom Buman if there was a chance for me to calibrate and identify land management and conservation opportunities. He invited me to the Land Improvement Conservation Association (LICA) farm east of Ames, Iowa to see firsthand what solutions a conservation agronomist employs through Agren or the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). 
As it turns out, land management has a lot in common with hybrid seed placement.
The first rule of selecting hybrids is that there are no silver bullets to help you optimize inputs per bushel of yield.  It takes an understanding that yield is a system and that soil nutrient interactions have a significant impact on the success of your hybrid and the environment.
Similarly, I’ve learned there is a system to land conservation. During my time with Tom, I asked him about what conservation practice everyone should use on their farms. And his answer was the same as mine is for a hybrid – there are no silver bullets. Around every corner he pointed out examples of the pros and cons of choices and explained rules for success that are similar to hybrid placement.
  1. Have the data and tools for an informed decision-making process and, where possible, use a precision approach.
  2. Know the grower’s objectives and his or her ability to implement the plan.
  3. Build a plan and be an active manager of the plan’s success, measuring what you are managing.
Conservation is the responsibility for our entire industry – farmers, conservationists and agronomists alike. We use precision ag tools to help meet profitability goals through optimized inputs per bushel. But we have another job — to use these same tools and skills to implement responsible agriculture on our farms every chance we get.  
Management of soil health and water movement are already part of many operations and are a solid base for land management and conservation. As precision ag tools continue to advance, be prepared to adopt new and different practices for even more precise land management.