Discovery Farms Minnesota helps farmers protect water quality and soil fertility

Discovery Farms

Discovery Farms Minnesota Coordinator George Rehm shows the equipment that captures real-world data on water run-off from Minnesota farm fields.

A green rectangular box with a solar panel on top and weather instruments jutting into the air sits at t the edge of Doug Hager’s field south of Mankato.

There’s a flume on the ground to the left, and beyond that is another green box, a trail camera and rain gauge.

The setup looks mysterious, but all that equipment is helping Minnesota farmers protect water quality and soil fertility. Hager’s farm is one of 11 Minnesota Discovery Farms, which is a farmer-led effort to collect real-world, on-farm water quality information from different types of farming systems.

“By making the information we collect available to farmers, it helps them make better nutrient management, tillage and other decisions,” said Warren Formo, executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resources Center (MAWRC). “We also want to use this data to explain what’s going on on farms.”

The 11 Discovery Farms are located throughout the state and, in order to collect data that is usable for farmers across Minnesota’s diverse farmlands, represent “typical” farms in each region. Hager’s farm is representative of the upland, flat farmland located near ravines that open to creeks and rivers in Southern Minnesota.

“We have an accurate picture of what’s really leaving the field,” said George Rehm, Discovery Farms Coordinator. “This is real-world data from actual fields.”

So what has the Discovery Farms team learned after more than three years of data collection? Mainly, that nutrient management is not a one-size-fits all endeavor.

For example, just because one farmer loses 15 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre doesn’t mean every farmer is losing the same from their fields. What works to help that farmer losing 15 pounds per acre reduce his losses might not work for a farmer in a different part of the state who is also working to reduce nutrient loss.

“As we find out local conditions that might lead to higher nutrient loss numbers, then we can do educational programs and nutrient management education to help bring those numbers down,” Formo said.

Remember the green box at the edge of Hager’s field? Inside is equipment measuring water runoff going through the flume. The other green box measures water going through Hager’s tiling system.

Discovery Farms Minnesota

The Discovery Farms Minnesota data collection system set up on the edge of Doug Hager’s field south of Mankato, Minn.

The weather instruments help calculate evaporation so the Discovery Farms team knows exactly how much water went where.

And it’s all monitored by video camera and computer.

“It’s a great use of modern technology,” Rehm said. “And you have the great cooperation of farmers like Doug Hager. He’s right on top of things and he’s really concerned about what goes on in his fields.”

This is the third year Discovery Farms has been monitoring Hager’s field and the nutrient loss through surface runoff or the tile line has been minimal. Of course, losses vary throughout the 11 Discovery Farms sites. All the data can be viewed here.

Another unique aspect of Discovery Farms Minnesota is the support it receives from a variety of funding partners. In addition to grassroots farmer organizations like the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, Discovery Farms receives support from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, MAWRC and local soil and water conservation districts.

“You don’t see cooperation and partnerships like this in many other states,” Rehm said. “It’s really a unique thing we can be proud of here in Minnesota.”

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