BLOOMING PRAIRIE, Minn. — Rebuilding soil and improving water quality are daunting tasks facing land owners throughout the Midwest. But if you reside in the Cedar River watershed, you are not in the battle alone.
The Cedar River Watershed Partnership, formed in 2017, is a first of its kind collaboration in Minnesota. The goal of the partnership is to improve water quality and farmer profitability utilizing precision agricultural practices and conservation.
Members of the Cedar River Watershed Partnership include Central Farm Service (a local ag retailer), Hormel Foods, Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, and the Mower Soil and Water Conservation District. The partnership is facilitated by Environmental Initiative — a nonprofit organization that works with business, nonprofit and government leaders to develop collaborative solutions to Minnesota’s environmental problems.
On Aug. 17, the Cedar River Watershed Partnership conducted a soil health field day at the Krell farm north of Blooming Prairie, Minn. Members of the watershed partnership were on hand to share their thoughts on how farmers can increase productivity while at the same time take measures to improve water quality.
Justin Krell is a fifth-generation farmer running 1,600 acres of corn, soybeans and sweet corn. The Krell farm has land in three different watersheds and is the highest point in Steele County. “As farmers, we have to take the opportunity to get involved and learn more every day. What I like about events like this is showing how different farming practices can coexist. You drive down the highway and you can see irrigators in fields that are also strip-tilled, you can see windmills turning and terraces, and you see a lot of growers side dressing corn now instead of putting all the nitrogen on up front. It’s important that we make ourselves aware of these practices.”
Matt Carstens, senior vice president of Land O’ Lakes SUSTAIN, stressed that water quality practices must expand beyond the group in attendance at the event. “We have to reach across to the public to protect our waters,” he said. “Public/private partnerships do matter. If we can duplicate this across Minnesota, the country, we win.”
“What we are doing here is not perfect,” Carstens went on to say. “We’re just moving in a direction to make improvements. But these practices have to be beneficial to farmers as well. Without profit, this cannot be sustainable.”
Bert Strayer, a cover crop expert with La Crosse Seed, and Steve Lawler, a soil scientist with Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, presented five farming practices to demonstrate how healthy soil can help with water retention and mitigate intense rain events.
Sections were cut out of fields implementing a variety of land practices. One section was taken from a field which used 11 species of cover crops in a grazing mix. The land is grazed for two months after harvest. Another section featured conventional soybean practice. The third section featured no-till corn planted into wheat stubble, and another with sweet corn planted in a green cover of winter rye. The final section was soil from a field practicing conventional sweet corn farming without cover crops. Each section was placed at a 6 percent slope and was watered with an inch of rain at a 7 to 10-minute rate. The simulated rainfall was collected in two separate containers — one to show water retention abilities of the soil and the other to collect runoff.
While soil samples featuring cover crops revealed little runoff, the conventional sweet corn field experienced about a 40 percent runoff rate. Plus, the runoff water from the conventional section was black with mud. Any runoff from soil incorporating cover crops was basically clear water.
“Rye is the most popular cover crop right now,” Strayer said. “It grows fast and is a forgiving species which overwinters well. Corn planted in a green cover crop is not for the novice. Most farmers starting out will do the interseeding just after planting in the spring — something short-term.”
Matt Kruger and Brian Ray of Land O’ Lakes demonstrated tilling practices using a chisel plow. Tanner Schuldt, service manager for Environmental Tillage Systems, drove a couple of passes with a Soil Warrior tilling system. Travis Routh, general manager for L&D Service in Hartland, Minn. showed the company’s strip till unit.
Krell said he has tried strip tillage on some of his fields this year. “Learning management is probably the biggest thing,” he said. “We cut down on passes and eliminated a spring pass and are seeing better fertilizer efficiency. But some of our neighbors and landlords are skeptical of the practice.”
District Manager Justin Hanson of the Mower SWCD agreed no-till and cover crop techniques are not always well received. “Soil health is a ‘silver bullet’ idea,” he said. “But farmers don’t want to be the one whose field looks terrible. That culture will change with a healthy profit margin.”
Ashley Schmeling, a precision ag agronomist with CFS, hopes farmers will be patient when implementing soil health techniques. “These practices will have the greatest impact on lighter soils,” she said. “But it might take years of field history to get there.”
Brad Redlin of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture spoke about the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. This voluntary program rewards farmers for implementing practices which help improve water quality. Benefits of participating in this program include technical and financial assistance, along with regulatory certainty for a 10-year period.
“Certification is site-specific,” Redlin said. “The reviewer looks for risks which needed to be treated. We meet one-on-one with service providers and look at the situation parcel-by-parcel, crop-by-crop.”
Fifteen farmers in the Cedar River Watershed are currently certified by MAWQCP, five of them through the activities of the Cedar River Watershed Partnership. Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN, in conjunction with CFS, is the first Minnesota private sector business to assist farmers in becoming certified in MAWQCP. This assistance may include providing education, advising growers, utilizing their data-collection capabilities, and helping farmers identify cost-share opportunities.
One of the farmers attending the event was concerned with having his operation scrutinized for water quality practices. “Sympathy for farmers is lost,” he stated. “There is a distance between urban and rural. Let’s say I open my farm up for the water quality program. What if they find bad things?”
Kruger said Land O’ Lakes can certify a farm for MAWQCP. “We can keep the government out of it,” he said. “No one can ask who is certified or where the land is located.”
Farmers interested in certification should contact their local soil and water conservation district to start the application process.
Krell motioned toward his daughter and said he wants to be able to pass the farm on to a sixth generation of Krells. He knows the importance of healthy soil and clean water for future descendants. In spite of current market prices, Krell remains optimistic.
“We are seeing less nitrogen usage while increasing yields,” he said. “We’re looking for a third crop besides corn and soybeans; and growing soybeans with winter wheat. We see the value of cover cropping and healthy soils. But from a renter’s standpoint, it’s tough to spend money on developing land you don’t own.”
The Cedar River watershed in Minnesota encompasses 454,029 acres in Mower, Freeborn, Dodge, and Steele counties. For more information on MAWQCP or other soil and water quality issues, contact Hanson at email@example.com; (507) 434-2606 ext. 5; or your local soil and water conservation district.