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Reduce Nitrate Loss on Your Farm

Saturated Buffers are Affordable and Effective for Edge-of-Field Conservation.

In 2020, turn your attention to affordable edge-of-field conservation practices like saturated buffers, which can remove 41% to 98% of the nitrate concentration leaving your farm.

A saturated buffer is designed to treat tile drainage water from fields that are adjacent to rivers, streams, lakes, and ditches.

The saturated buffer intercepts a field tile and redistributes the water through a buffer strip’s soil profile. As the water drains through the soil profile, perennial plants take up the excess nutrients.

Keegan Kult, executive director of the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition, lists several characteristics that the Natural Resources Conservation Service will look for to determine the suitability of a field for a saturated buffer:

  1. Saturated buffers are typically installed on tile systems that drain 30 to 100 acres, which ensures suitable flow and treatable nitrate levels.
  2. To meet the Natural Resources Conservation Service standards, you need to have at least 30 feet of perennial vegetation in a filter strip.
  3. Loam or clay loam soil is ideal, and the area must have a high water table.
  4. You must also have soil organic matter. Kult says, “We don’t want the soil to be sandy or gravelly. Sometimes next to larger river systems, that can be the case because the river might have migrated back and forth over the years and there might be gravel layers to avoid.” The NRCS identifies 1.2% organic matter to a depth of 2½ feet as ideal for denitrification.
  5. Stream banks must be stable and 8 feet or shorter in height.

Installation costs range from $2,000 to $4,000, but cost-share, often up to 100%, is available through state water quality initiatives, Environmental Quality Incentives Programs, and Conservation Reserve Programs.

Across the Midwest, about 22% of the tile drained landscape is suitable for saturated buffers. With this potential, 5% to 10% of the total tile-contributed nitrate load could be removed.

READ MORE: 20 Strategies That Farmers Can Use In 2020

If you’re considering adding this practice to your 2020 conservation initiatives, it’s best to get started now. Due to design standards, the NRCS will need to complete a survey of the potential buffer site and work up a design. While each scenario will vary, it generally takes about six months to a year from sign up to completed installation.

However, after the buffer is designed and install is scheduled, a contractor only needs about three hours to get the project wrapped up from start to finish.

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