AgWater Exchange shares data on best management practices

(The bioreactor working to cull nitrates from drainage water)

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

A lot of important research is happening on the farm, but how is that information getting into the hands of farmers? One way information is being shared is via a blog called The AgWater Exchange.

The blog often features findings from Minnesota’s Discovery Farms, a group of farms where scientists are conducting research into nutrient and sediment loss. Gorans Farm in Willmar is featured in the most recent postings on The AgWater Exchange.

Kim Gorans and his brothers raise corn, soybeans and turkeys. The nitrate losses from their farm fields have dropped steadily over time, due to careful attention to improving fertilizer and tillage programs on the farm and also due to installation of a bioreactor, which culls nitrates from the drainage water leaving the field.

A Field Day on Nov. 10 at Gorans Farms will showcase the research findings to date and show how well a bioreactor optimized for Minnesota conditions can work. Researchers feel that nutrient flows off the farm can be cut by substantial margins—a major step toward improving water quality in nearby lakes and streams.

Gary Feyereisen, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s department of soil, water and climate, helped design the Gorans’ bioreactor and the replicated experimental trials. The goal of the trials was to test different media and different microbes in the bioreactor, leading to a combination that’s optimal for field conditions in Minnesota.

Feyereisen explains bioreactors work via a process called denitrification with tile drainage water. Half of tile drainage water is gone by mid-May when the water’s temperature is still cold, leading to a slow biological process. The bioreactor works to speed up the rate of nitrate removal despite the cold temps.

“The Discovery Farms sites are really good from the standpoint of modeling,” says Carl Rosen, who is the head of the University of Minnesota’s soil, water and climate department and director of the research at Gorans. “There is a lot of data coming from these Discovery Farms. It’s a goldmine.”

The ever-increasing data produced by the Discovery Farms sites will allow for predictive science around a conservation practice a farmer might consider trying. Research scientists will be able to observe a change at a Discovery Farm site and see what impact the new practice has on nutrient and soil loss.

Tim Radatz, coordinator of Minnesota’s Discovery Farms, oversees the collection of data and its synthesis into useful information for farmers.

“We try to emphasize the ‘continuous improvement’ concept with all we do in water quality work,” said Radatz.

Radatz says farmers can begin by measuring what is happening on their farm. Once they have a good understanding on how nutrients are moving through their operation, they can make some adjustments. If those adjustments are effective, they can try it more broadly.

Minnesota’s Discovery Farms network is coordinated through the Minnesota Agricultural Water Resource Center (MAWRC). MAWRC is a research and education organization comprised of agriculture groups from across Minnesota, working to identify and address water-related issues. For more information on Minnesota’s Discovery Farms and MAWRC, click here.

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