Preventing soil erosion and protecting water quality are high on the list of conservation goals for most farmers. To achieve those goals, farmers use a variety of practices, including cover crops, no-till, terraces, fencing, collection ponds and precision application of fertilizers.
How well do these practices work? Edge-of-field water quality monitoring helps answer that question.
Gathering Crucial Information
Edge-of-field water quality monitoring, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Ag Research Service, is led by Dr. Kevin King, research agricultural engineer and leader for the soil drainage research unit. Along with other conservation practices, edge-of-field monitoring is being utilized within the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms project.
Aaron Heilers, project manager for the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network, says finding out when nutrients leave the field, whether it happens through surface or subsurface water, and whether it is immediate in some cases or a slow trickle over time
are all important questions the project aims to answer.
“We’re gathering crucial information,” Heilers says. “It’s one thing to have water quality monitoring in the tributaries after water flowing from the fields and other sources are mixed together, but it’s so much better to understand what’s happening at the edge of
Ideally, the monitoring is done on side-by-side fields with the same soil types and drainage patterns. The surface and subsurface flow of water is tested from each field in order to assess the success of different conservation practices.
“We can tell everyone to use cover crops and not to spread fertilizer when it’s going to rain, but being able to show results and make recommendations on those results is crucial to protecting the watershed,” Heilers says.
Economic consideration is also an important factor. Identifying the methods that work will allow producers to focus their time and money on those specific methods. The goal of Demonstration Farms is to identify and implement economically feasible conservation practices that reduce nutrient and sediment loss. Farmers throughout Ohio can visit the farms to learn about the conservation practices and determine if the practice will work on their farm.
“Teasing out that information is critical,” Heilers says. “We’re not at that level yet, but we’re getting pretty close. As we continue to gather data, there will be a degree of certainty. Then we can say to producers: If you implement this practice, you will see a reduction in nutrient loss.”
Discovering What Works
Duane Stateler and his son, Anthony, farm corn, soybeans and wheat on about 800 acres in Hancock County. They also have a 7,200 head wean-to-finish swine operation. They have designated 243 acres for the Demonstration Farms project.
Stateler Family Farms is practicing variable rate manure application as part of the program. Duane Stateler says he welcomed the opportunity to participate in the edge-of-field monitoring program. “We felt like we were doing things the right way; this is a chance to see and prove it or find out if we need to change,” he says.
The voluntary edge-of-field monitoring program is designed to allow a comparison of conservation efforts to determine effectiveness. In summer 2019, the Stateler’s applied manure after wheat harvest, then planted a cover crop on that site. On the other site, a cover crop was planted. After planting corn next spring, they will side-dress applying manure in furrows beside the growing crop to compare with commercial fertilizer.
“With edge-of-field monitoring, we’ll be able to see if there is any difference between yields and water quality and we’ll know the amount of nutrients leaving the farm,” Stateler says. “The monitoring gives us a better perspective as to how things are going.”
The Stateler family has farmed the same land since 1874. Duane expects his grandchildren will be the seventh generation to farm the land.
“We have been fortunate that each generation has built the farm up enough to where the next generation could take it and grow it even more,” he says. “Taking care of the land and water at this point isn’t for me, it’s for my grandkids.”