In Search of Clean Water

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago Conference Discusses Ag Solutions to Environmental Issues

Years ago, Kevin Mahalko remembers his father talking about being able to see great northern pike in the crystal clear water of northern Wisconsin’s Yellow River. 

But now? The Gilman, Wisconsin, dairy farmer says rivers are “…just filled with chocolate water. Not chocolate, but soil,” Mahalko says. “It’s more than a little change. It’s something we have to fix.” 

A slate of speakers attending the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s annual Agriculture Conference addressed the effects and impacts of agriculture on the environment on November 20. 

The knowledge and tools exist to fix environmental challenges to waterways, but represent a shift in current thinking. 

Setting the Stage

Nutrient and sediment runoff from farming is often blamed for nutrient loading of surface and groundwater. Evidence of this include the growing “dead zone” of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, and algae blooms in Lake Erie. Farming is not the only source, mind you. But it is a major contributor to the nearly 8,000-square-mile area.  

Nitrogen fertilizer is often cited as a culprit in the hypoxia zone, so named because oxygen is depleted in the ocean water, causing marine life to either flee the area or die. Farming in a more environmentally-friendly manner is one way to combat these challenges, says Gary Schnitkey, agricultural economist at the University of Illinois. 

Research from the nonprofit Illinois Precision Conservation Management (PCM) shows that farmers can convert tillage systems to strip-till, putting nitrogen and phosphorous on more precisely and at the right time, Schnitkey says. Plus, farmers can use less nitrogen. 

PCM work shows that in many cases, 160 to 180 pounds of nitrogen per acre tends to be an adequate amount to maximize profitability and reduce nitrogen runoff. 

“These farmers are both environmentally conscious and they want to make money,” Schnitkey says. “But they don’t want to lose yield, and more pounds of nitrogen is cheap insurance.” 

Schnitkey adds that cover crop adoption can do even more to prevent erosion, by keeping the soil covered in times when cash crops are no longer growing. These cover crops protect the soil surface from wind and rain erosion and their roots anchor the soil, adding another layer of protection. 

Livestock Impact

The livestock industry has made great strides in improving its environmental footprint by boosting meat output per animal through adoption of improved technology and management practices, says James Mintert, professor and director of Purdue University’s Center for Commercial Agriculture. 

How dramatic? Pigs per litter has increased from 7.8 in 1990 to 11.1 pigs in 2019. Also, pounds of beef per cow soared from 533 in 1990 to 657 pounds in 2018. Poultry efficiency is just as good, Mintert says. 

Still, much of the corn and soybeans produced in the Mississippi River Valley and its tributaries are used in the production of meat. So indirectly, the meat industry can shoulder some of the blame for the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone.” 

And, while animal agriculturists produce more meat with fewer animals and fewer resources, there’s no question that livestock produce a terrific amount of effluent. 

For example, Matt Krueger, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association, says Wisconsin’s 1.27 million dairy cows produce 12 billion gallons of liquid manure per year. 

More than two-thirds of Wisconsinites get their drinking water from a well, and the state’s wells are increasingly contaminated, Krueger says. 

Some 42,000 private wells have excessive nitrogen contamination; the cost to remediate those is an estimated $440 million. 

That has prompted Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers to declare 2019 the "Year of Clean Drinking Water” and to unveil a package of incentives and programs to kick-start well remediation, plus deal with non-ag-related lead-laden water pipes in some municipalities. 

What Can Be Done?

The fact is, soil and water quality is compromised by a lot of practices. But – whether you believe in climate change or not – agriculture can help the nation remediate the effects of weather extremes while improving natural resources at the same time. 

Some hurdles include the fact that more and more, farmers are renting land from absentee landlords. In Iowa alone, 45% of the state’s farm acres fit this bill, according to Alejandro Plastina, Iowa State University assistant professor and Wendiam Sawadgo, graduate student. When they don't own the land, many producers are hesitant to adopt conservation practices like cover crops, buffer strips, and no-till. Yet, in research the pair conducted, landowners indicated they would be willing to increase cover crop adoption – even pay for part of the planting cost – if asked. Moreover, they would be more inclined to adopt conservation practices in exchange for tax credits and/or tax deductions. 

Should you need any assistance in helping landlords understand the promise that conservation practices have on the environment, the American Farmland Trust recently released the results of soil health case studies on farm operations in Illinois, Ohio, New York, and California. 

The research shows that by managing for soil health, growers can boost yield, decrease input costs, and improve profit, while conserving soil and boosting water quality, says Emily Bruner, Midwest Conservation and Stewardship Manager with the American Farmland Trust.

Highlights of the four case studies include: 

  • All four farmers profiled saw improved yields ranging from 2% to 22% that they attributed, in part, to their soil health practices. The average return on investment was 176% for the four farms in the study and ranged from 35% to 343%. The study accounted for other factors at play in increased yield such as improved seed varieties and increased seeding rates.
  • Using the USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT), the farmers saw improved water quality outcomes, both by witnessing reduced soil and water runoff. NTT estimated that nitrogen reductions ranged from 40% to 98%, phosphorus reductions ranged from 74% to 92%, and sediment reductions ranged from 76% to 96% from specific fields in each farm.
  • There are improved climate outcomes, as estimated by USDA’s COMET-Farm Tool. The tool estimates that total greenhouse gas emission reductions from specific fields in each farm ranged from 16% to 560%, corresponding to taking three-fourths of a car to 17 cars off the road. 

More details about these projects can be found in these two-page case studies

Still, there are myriad hurdles to adopting stricter conservation practices. For one, it takes money, Bruner explains.

“Farmers do want to make a profit and they want to take care of their land. It’s their livelihood,” she says. “The resistance is that bottom line, or the economics.”

Bruner adds that misconceptions about reduced tillage systems or adding cover crops will cause yield drag or take a long time for soil to transition are another barrier. Finally, the lack of credible knowledge – tailored to a farmer’s specific needs – concerns many growers.

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