Conservation in Action

Tour showcases efforts to improve soil health and minimize nutrients entering waterways.

Keegan Kult, far right, executive director of the Ag Drainage Management Coalition, explains to Conservation in Action tour participants how woodchip-filled bioreactors, like this one on the Bill and Nancy Couser farm near Nevada, Iowa, remove harmful nitrates from tile drainage water before it leaves the property. (Progressive Farmer image by Matthew Wilde)

More than 100 people from across the nation recently got an up-close look at the latest conservation practices that will improve water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico.

Participants on the daylong Conservation in Action Tour, held by the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC), in West Lafayette, Indiana, learned how a bioreactor on the Bill and Nancy Couser farm, near Nevada, Iowa, removes nitrates from water before it leaves their property. It was one of many conservation practices showcased that improves water quality and soil health.

The bioreactor was under construction during the tour. Attendees climbed on a pile of wood chips, some even picked up a handful to smell, as Keegan Kult, executive director of the Ag Drainage Management Coalition, explained how the wood refuse will help people and the environment.

BIOREACTOR BASICS

The bioreactor is a 20- x 120-foot plastic-lined underground chamber filled with wood chips. Water drained by tile from a nearby field is directed into the pit. Microorganisms on the wood chips convert the nitrates, a harmful pollutant, in the water into nitrogen gas that's released into the atmosphere. The water is treated before it flows into a nearby waterway that's part of the Skunk River Watershed, which will eventually make its way to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

"People can expect a 30 to 60% nitrate load reduction from a bioreactor," Kult told the tour group. "It's one of the more cost-efficient practices for nitrate removal the public can invest in."

A bioreactor costs $8,000 to $12,000 to build. Landowners can often receive government cost-share help for edge-of-field and in-field conservation practices. A bioreactor typically treats 30 to 80 acres for about 12 years before wood chips need to be replaced.

SEEING IS BELIEVING

CTIC promotes and provides information on technologies and sustainable, productive and profitable agricultural systems that conserve and enhance soil, water, air and wildlife. The organization -- financed by agribusinesses, commodity groups and individuals -- holds an annual tour to bring people together from across the country to learn and talk about conservation practices and issues they don't see every day.

"People get a chance to see bioreactors, saturated buffers and cover crops ... things they can touch, feel and see," says Mike Komp, CTIC executive director. "Officials from industry, conservation groups and all levels of government come together to talk with farmers and each other about conservation to tackle challenges in agriculture."

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This year's summer expedition in central Iowa stopped at farms owned by the Couser family, Lee Tesdell, near Slater, and the Iowa chapter of the Land Improvement Contractors of America, near Melbourne. The group also toured New Century FS, in Melbourne, to learn about nutrient and chemical application, and best-management practices.

Each farm stop featured conservation practices to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It's a science-based plan approved in 2013 to reduce nitrate and phosphorus loads entering waterways by 45% from point and nonpoint sources. Other states in the Mississippi River Watershed have similar strategies with the ultimate goal of improving water quality and reducing the hypoxic, or "dead zone," in the Gulf of Mexico that's largely void of aquatic life.

GOOD TIMING

Komp believes it was the perfect time to visit Iowa
to learn how various conservation practices affect
the environment and cropping systems during
adverse weather.

Massive flooding occurred in the state this year. Persistent precipitation delayed planting and harvest. Plus, some parts of Iowa experienced abnormally dry and moderate drought conditions.

Conservation experts and farmers told tour participants how wetlands and cover crops help hold back water and nutrients in the spring from already-full rivers, and how a combination of conservation tillage and cover crops build organic matter and improve water retention.

"If I could control the weather, I would have this business whipped," Bill Couser told the group. "But, I can't. That doesn't mean I won't continue to find a way to do it.

"I'm representing the American farmer here," he continued. "A lot of innovative things are going on. We want to be good stewards so the land is available to the next generation."

CONSERVATION ON DISPLAY

The Cousers, who farm with two sons, recently created a 220-acre AGvocacy Learning Farm project in partnership with Bayer and other groups. It has six fields that reflect common farming landscapes throughout Iowa. A few conservation practices being studied include:

> Cover crops: A crop(s), such as cereal rye, is planted between periods of regular crop production to prevent erosion, increase the soil organic matter and sequester nutrients.

> Saturated buffer: Water from a field tile is intercepted and discharged into an adjoining riparian buffer/filter strip via a lateral tile line. (Studies show nitrate removal of 22 to 44%).

> Bioreactor

> Automated drainage water management. The water table in a field is managed using control structures in the tile system. More water can be retained in the soil profile when needed. Studies show it can reduce nitrates and dissolved phosphorus discharge by 33 and 50%, respectfully.

Conservation measures will be monitored and benefits quantified. Results will serve to advance the state's nutrient-reduction strategy and promote acceleration and adoption of practices.

"It's our data, but it will be shared with everyone," Couser says.

INFORMATION PUT TO USE

David Meyer, who works in predictive agriculture for Corteva Agriscience, wanted to see how conservation practices interact with different cropping systems so farms can become more sustainable.

"Our company is all about solving problems," Meyer says. "We look at what issues farmers face now and in the future to offer seed, technology and crop-protection tools to help farmers and consumers."

The Nature Conservancy has conservation projects in half the states, explains
Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, North America nutrient-strategy manager. She attended to garner new ideas to keep nutrients on farmland and out of drainage tile and waterways.

That's why CTIC will continue the annual conservation trek, Komp asserts. "We want participants to learn from each other and go back across the country and make a difference."

> Follow Matthew on Twitter at @progressivwilde.

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