Farmers say stewardship key to keeping land, water sustainable for future generations

The Turner family farming operation in Cass and Mason counties has a multi-generational commitment to good land stewardship.

“My father-in-law taught me a lot to pass it along to my generation, and I have my two adult sons in the farming operation right now so they are looking to do the same things,” said the current patriarch of the farming operation, Steve Turner. “With each generation there are bound to be new techniques and technology to advance it a bit more.”

The Turner farms are an example of various soil, water and nutrient stewardship practices, some tried and true and some relatively new, that keep dirt and fertilizer on the farm and put cleaner water downstream. The latter result is especially important in their Mason County operation, which is located above a huge water aquifer that supplies critical irrigation to crops grown in the area’s sandy soils.

The Turners practice no-till and conservation tillage, which leaves crop residue on the ground, and their fields are green with cover crops such as rye grass in the off-season. Both of these traditional practices help to control wind and water erosion. Their Cass County ground also features grassy areas between the hills to carry away excess water.

These relatively common practices have been supplemented this spring on the Turner farms by the installation of water and sediment control basins, a series of embankments that store and slowly release water runoff through field drains that connect to drainage tile. 

“I call them ‘dry dams.’ They minimize the amount of time the water has to be on top of the ground and moving across the soil, because that’s what causes erosion,” Turner said. “I have a sediment bed to capture the nutrients. Anything you can do to control that water movement, you also control soil erosion and nutrient loss.” 

When the Turners apply nitrogen fertilizer, especially on their irrigated ground, they spread out the applications and don’t apply it all at once.

“We put on small amounts of nitrogen which really works well because it’s going right to the roots and doesn’t lay around on the ground,” Turner said. “The plants are picking that up real quick.”

Sangamon County grain farmer Joe Pickrell is planning to install a relatively new technology, saturated buffers, at the edge of several fields on his 4,000-acre grain farm near Buffalo. The Illinois Farm Bureau will host a field day at Pickrell’s farm in June to install the saturated buffer, a demonstration that will be part of the Sangamon County Farm Bureau’s annual Field Day.

“The Farm Bureau put out feelers to see who might be interested in putting in a buffer strip. On our farm we have a creek that runs basically through the main part of our farm,” Pickrell said. “I told them I was interested, because we want to make sure that the nitrogen and the other inputs stay where they are supposed to be and we have clean water.”. 

Agricultural drainage tile removes excess water from farm fields but while moving that water, the tile also moves any nutrients the water may have picked up on its journey. Those nutrients will keep flowing downstream unless there’s a way to stop them.

Saturated buffers feature control structures that intersect with drainage tile at the edge of a field and divert the water to underground pipes that run parallel to a stream or drainage ditch. Those pipes allow the diverted water and the nutrients they contain to gradually seep into the soil, where grasses that have been planted above the installation take up the water and nutrients.   

“Think of the soil as a sponge. If the soil is super-saturated it can’t take any more water so that water is going to go somewhere, it will roll off of the sponge,” Pickrell said. “If we tile the soil and install a saturated buffer we hopefully keep that sponge drier. That way if we do get a heavy rain event, that soil can take that water in and it won’t run off.”

Pickrell and his father and brother, who are his farming partners, want to be good stewards of the land and soil.   

“Fertilizer is very expensive and we definitely want it to stay where it’s supposed to be,” Pickrell said. “We live there, we have wells there, we drink the water, we want everything to be as safe as possible.”

Thomas Beyers from Odin is chairman of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

“These water control and nutrient loss reduction strategies remediate those nutrients that are getting into the Mississippi River watershed and impacting the Gulf of Mexico,” Beyers said. “By using these practices you are being a good steward of the public waters. It’s the right thing to do.”

Beyers pointed to two other new practices that are gaining acceptance. Bioreactors divert water into a wood chip filter, and “the microbial actions that go on in those saturated wood chips use up the nitrates,” he said. “A little more expensive method is discharging the effluent into a constructed wetland, where the microbial processes that go on in the wetland remove the nitrates.”

Jill Kostel of the Wetlands Initiative helps farmers to turn non-profitable, marginal areas of their operations into tile water treatment wetlands.

“If we get a wetland that is up to 2½ percent of the tile drainage area, we can get 50 to 90% nitrogen removal,” Kostel said. “At the low end it’s around 30%, but usually it’s in the 50% to 60% range. And it’s seasonal, wetlands work best when they’re warm.” 

Kostel said there are other benefits to developing wetlands on the farm. 

“They are all comprised of native vegetation, so it attracts pollinators, waterfowl, birds, turtles, frogs, sometimes deer and turkeys,” Kostel said. “You’re not going to have quite the diverse food web as you would in a natural wetland, because the space is limited and it’s kind of isolated, but if you plant it, they will find it.”

The Illinois Farm Bureau has a nutrient stewardship grant program to help farmers with some of these conservation practices, and environmental program manager Raelynn Parmely is excited about the growing use of some of the newer technologies in the field.

“We expect to see more as farmers are given nutrient loss credits for these practices,” Parmely said. “They keep soil in place, keep nutrients in place, and help to slow the flow of water a bit, which helps downstream for drinking water.”

“We all eat. We all drink water. It’s important to remember that it’s not just one group working on this issue, it’s a lot of different groups,” Parmely said. “Agriculture is definitely engaged in trying to identify the best practices.” 

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via rk2’s favorite articles on Inoreader

April 23, 2023 at 08:39AM

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