Good soil management promotes the quality of water

    The weather forecast of several inches of snow falling on the Chicago area did not discourage a number of Chicago Farmers’ members from attending the March 13 meeting, which dealt with the relationship between agriculture and water quality. Unfortunately, travel conditions did hamper our speakers’ ability to get to Chicago. But Chicago Farmers’ member Jeff O’Connor, who had come to the meeting to provide support for the scheduled speakers, volunteered to take on the topic of “Cover Crops and Nutrient Reduction” and serve as the day’s presenter.

    O’Connor, a graduate of the University of Illinois, is a sixth generation farmer who raises soybeans, corn and wheat on 1,000 acres in Kankakee County. He also is chairman of the Kankakee County Soil & Water Conservation District and a member of the Kankakee County Farm Bureau.   In both roles he works to promote the use of cover crops and better nutrient management.

    In addressing the connection between agriculture and water quality, O’Connor explained that the two become linked through the gulf hypoxia zones. Hypoxia, or low oxygen, is an environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms.

    The largest hypoxic zone currently affecting the United States, and the second largest hypoxic zone worldwide, is the northern Gulf of Mexico adjacent to the Mississippi River. O’Connor noted that there have been sedimentation studies in the gulf to determine how long the flushing of nutrients down the Mississippi has been occurring. Studies were possible through the study of two types of algae that thrive in a hypoxic zone and whose remains can be measured in the sediment on the Gulf floor.   He said that researchers have routinely been able to measure higher concentrations of these single cell organisms in the gulf area sediment dating back to the 1950s. These higher concentrations roughly coincide with the advent of modern agriculture and the introduction of commercial fertilizers.

    To control the flow of nutrients into the Mississippi River Watershed, the USEPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) in 2011 urged states to develop strategies to reduce the outflow.  Illinois stakeholders met from August 2013 to May 2014 to develop a strategy and gave input that resulted in the release of a 10 year plan in July 2015.  Guidelines were developed and in July 2015 the official Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) plan was adopted.  Several points that O’Connor made from that plan include:

    • Science assessment-the University of Illinois along with IEPA conducted research that addressed what practices could be used to control loss and at what cost.
    • Rivers that are considered impaired receive priority but non-impaired watersheds also are to be supported in the maintenance of the quality of their water. Interestingly, O’Connor noted that the Kankakee River is probably the cleanest river in the state due to the act that its primary source of water comes from Indiana through limestone and bedrock.
    • By 2025, there should be a 15 percent reduction of nitrates and a 25 percent reduction of phosphorous being flushed from fields into the Mississippi with an ultimate goal of 45 percent reduction for both. O’Connor added that studies have gone so far as to test the water run-off of golf courses and homeowners’ properties and found that they were contributing little to the problem. Agricultural lands are the main source within Illinois.

    O’Connor said that a priority of the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) is the education, research, implementation, and accumulation of evidence of ability to protect the quality of water. The Illinois Farm Bureau has allocated $100,000 for the Nutrient Stewardship Grant program that is funding 15 projects in 32 counties. O’Connor pointed out that it also is important to have boots in the field demonstrating what needs to be done. IFB also is offering free, confidential water testing in select counties to test for levels of nitrates in tile drained farm fields.

    To further education in the use of cover crops, O’Connor said demonstrations of new practices are necessary; there has to be a cultural change among farmers; and the appearance of innovators and early adopters of cover crops to lead the way are necessary. He noted that changes should benefit both the environment and the livelihood of agriculture.

    Among the changes that need to take place, for example, is more application of nitrogen to fields of corn in May or June, prior to when the tassels appear. O’Connor said this is the time when the corn is in most need of the nitrogen, rather than in the fall when nitrogen traditionally had been applied. “Putting nitrogen on when the crop needs it and is using it means less opportunity for it to escape in run-off,” he noted.

    Tillage patterns also need to be changed, said O’Connor. “No-till is a better system for soil health,” he said. “The worst thing you can do to discourage soil health is work the soil.”

    Regarding cover crops, O’Connor said that his use of cereal rye as a cover crop has prevented erosion of the soil through wind and water.  Any soil that leaves a field often carries with it phosphorus residue. As a result of the cover crop usage, phosphorous stayed put. The cover crop system also had no increased herbicide costs.

    O’Connor said that he found cereal rye to be a beneficial cover crop because it grows anywhere, handles cold weather well and grows early in the spring. He said his system mixes the cover crop seed with fertilizer in the fall and both are spread on fields that will be rotating to soybeans in the subsequent year.  O’Connor noted that the roots of cereal rye may inhibit the growth of corn, but not soybeans. He related that he raises his own cereal rye seed on areas of his farm where corn won’t grow profitably. O’Connor is able to raise the seed for $7 to $8 per bushel versus the commercial cost of $15 per bushel. He also sells excess seed to neighbors. O’Connor said that many producers use their fields of cover crops for grazing livestock. Winter rapeseed is another good cover crop that he is experimenting with.   Winter rapeseed can overwinter well and adds diversity to the soil fungal activity.

    Regarding cover crops’ effectiveness in removing residual nutrients, O’Connor said that he had two fields of corn in 2015, side by side. In one field, a cover crop was not used; in another, there was a cover crop. The following spring he said there was a 67 percent reduction of nitrates leaving the soil in the cover crop field versus the field with no cover crop.