Discovery Farms data fuels conservation efforts

Written by Jonathan Eisenthal

For Minnesotans, achieving the best possible water quality is non-negotiable. Farmers share that mindset, and are taking action to be part of the solution.

One way they have demonstrated it over the past decade is Discovery Farms, a program that monitors actual working farms and assesses exactly how much soil and nutrients leave the fields and enter streams and lakes. The data gathered from many different kinds of farms in different landscapes offers a strong indication that farmers can use conservation methods to reduce their impact on the environment.

A Discovery Farms Summit this past week brought together researchers and farmers to share the results and talk about the future of the program.

Adam Birr, executive director of Minnesota Corn Growers Association, was one of many leaders from supporting ag organizations who attended the Summit. For MCGA, Birr said the mission and results from Discovery Farms fits MCGA’s pledge to be among the most sustainable farmers in the nation.

Discovery Farms data, along with other university research, has reframed the water quality discussion by showing that there is a natural, background nutrient and sediment contribution in some landscapes. Water quality goals should not be set to zero loss, but instead should focus on practices that can reduce the farm contribution as much as possible.

Discovery Farms data show that timing is everything, and a balanced approach achieves the best overall results, according to Tim Radatz, coordinator of Discovery Farms Minnesota, and the director of data management and analysis for both Discovery Farms Minnesota and Discovery Farms Wisconsin. He has the benefit of being able to integrate the data from both states, which amounts to 35 farm sites and 151 site years.

Among the most important findings: May through July, the three months between planting and the establishment of the crop’s canopy, are the months of heaviest soil loss and particulate phosphorous loss. It all comes down to the power of raindrops hitting bare soil. Whatever farmers can do to cover that soil has benefit, whether it is leaving more residue from the previous crop, planting a cover crop, or even maintaining a perennial planting between the rows of the crops.

Another major finding is that snowmelt season, from February through April, sees the highest dissolved phosphorus losses. Avoiding application during this time period and incorporating fertilizers and manure when applied can reduce risk of loss. Dissolved phosphorous, concentrated at the surface of the soil, can be a byproduct of both surface fertilizer and manure application and crop residue. Discovery Farms sites have demonstrated that minimally invasive incorporation can prevent loss of dissolved phosphorous from surface soil runoff. Radatz touted this as a balanced approach.

“We feel that oftentimes the farmer voice gets left out of the water quality discussion,” said Radatz. “So we really try to get farmers talking about their involvement in the Discovery Farms process. That’s really important for us. We also provide credible research. We partner with people who know how to collect this data. We have a high-quality data set that we can use now, and we want that data used.”

Breakout sessions also took place during the Summit focused on how Discovery Farms data is being used. One example is presenting how data is addressing public concerns and modeling by agency and industry water quality personnel to show how various conservation farming practices can positively impact water quality in Minnesota.

Learn about more farmer-funded research by clicking here.

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