Thursday, July 24, 2014

Soil Health Forum and Water World

So last Tuesday I went down to Brownsburg, Indiana to attend a field day hosted by area manager Mike Starkey.  I have reported on a previous field day there last August 8.  Mike is a strong proponent of no till, having been 100% no till for the past eight years, I think.  Anyway, I reported on how he farms responsibly since he is so close to the urban sprawl of Indianapolis.  But today's field day was different.  He was hosting a tour of the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD).  This was their National Soil Health Forum.  They usually meet in Washington, DC, but this year decided to visit a real farm.  And there is no finer host than Mike.  But there were people there from all over the country and many had little knowledge of farming.  Mike asked me to come to learn, but also to help answer any questions that may arise about fertility programs and agronomy.  I did. Anyway, the group was pretty large and was split up into several places.  Below Mike covers cover crops.  He has planted some strips of different cover crops.  He has favorite blends or cocktail mixes to plant after different crops.  In fact he plants cover crops after each field crop, and said that he will have some flown on his standing corn crop in early August.  He said that cover crops are used by many growers in this area.  It takes a good pilot to apply cover crops accurately and evenly.  He has a good one that two years ago was flying on 500 acres of cover crops.  Now he seeds some 35,000 acres, and had to buy 2 more planes to do it.  And Mike was the catalyst for this.  Another reason to thank an aerial applicator.
Here was some signs put up by the Hendricks County Soil and Water Conservation District.  (Does anyone remember Burma Shave signs?)
They also had a root pit.  Now the spring was very wet, but lately it's been dry.  But he said that the pit bottom was filled with water soon after digging.  That's due to the water soaking in with no-till.  In fact they had to put a sump pump in the bottom.  Very interesting.  So the corn has plenty of water even though it's been dry lately.  However, due to the wet spring, I didn't see the roots going down as deep as other years.  This happens in wet soils.  But it was holding water and no signs of moisture stress at all.
They also saw Mike's planter planter and how they apply AgroLiquid fertilizer to corn.  Mike is also in the equipment business, and his partner AJ tells how a corn crop is planted and fertilized.  They are Liquid only since they saw no benefit to broadcast dry fertilizer that didn't build soils, cost too much, and weren't made for no-till like Liquid.  
This is the back of the planter.  They run Pro-Germinator + Sure-K + Micro 500 + eNhance through Totally Tubular tubes in the seed furrow, and then around 16 gallons of High NRG-N through the surface tubes on each side of the row.  Then they come back later in the summer and sidedress on additional High NRG-N. This program feeds the no-till crop much better than the old conventional ways.  By the way, they really like the Dawn closing wheels for no-till planting.
Then we moved to a nearby area for something new and exciting.  It seems that Mike has been an advocate for getting some science behind his practices to prove they are better.  So he talked to some people over the years and a big project is underway. Or will be in 2015. There are a number of participating agencies and supporting groups.  But it is part of the National Water Quality Initiative. Some of the agencies involved are the EPA, USGS, USDA/ARS, and probably some more alphabet groups.  But they want to monitor the watershed area that feeds the Eagle Creek Reservoir which is the drinking water source for Indianapolis.  Mike and another no-till AgroLiquid user, Jack Maloney, farm along this part of the watershed/creek.  Here a USGS scientist explains how they will monitor the stream 24/7 for nitrate, phosphorus and sediments.  He said once it is started it will be able to be monitored online.  It is a pretty small creek for all of this.  But it does feed the water supply.
The leader of the project is Dr. Bob Barr, a hydrologist with IUPUI (a joint university of Indiana and Purdue in Indianapolis.)  That's him in the orange cap.  He has met with Mike over the years and has become interested in this whole issue of farming effects on water.  He had no farming background, which he said was an advantage as he had no pre-conceived notions on any of the practices.  He did say that based on his observations that it is amazing how so many non-farmers are wanting to tell farmers how to farm. He has sampled water coming out of Mike's tile lines that show lower nitrate and phosphorus levels than are already in the stream, being diluted many times.  But all of the numbers were well under established limits.  He has reported on this to other states and they are amazed. So this lead to a proposed study of the effects of different farming practices on water quality. Now he did say that none of the water has come close to being considered an issue for drinking water. But there is no study anywhere as in depth as this will be.  Hey, there's RSM Bob in the lower right also listening in.
They will monitor tile discharge from farms of different tillage: no-till, minimum till and conventional till.  All will have to use similar fertilizer programs, which means for the monitored area, he will have to spread some dry according to university recs.  But they will only measure the output of a single tile line that does not have any other lines from other fields feeding into it.  They also plan to monitor a drain of a neighborhood area.  This is to check on urban effects on water quality, largely from lawn care.  So that will be a good balance.  Here is where the tile comes in and then goes through a pvc pipe filled with tree bark. This has been shown to remove nitrates.  Not sure if this is part of the big study, or something else, since not everyone does this.  Will have to check.
The pipe is under the ground for some distance, then empties into this basin and then into the creek. Pretty complicated, and spendy.  This one site cost over $100k, but was covered by government project dollars plus several grower groups.  Mike is happy to participate, but does not want to have to pay for it himself.
Here is a buffer strip that Mike has planted along the creek anyway.  Very pretty site. He is doing all he can to not be a threat to any water.
And on my way home I crossed over the nearby Eagle Creek Reservoir.
So this was a lot to see in one day.  I hope I got most of the facts right.  I forgot to mention that the initial tillage comparison will run for two years.  But after that the plan is for Mike to go back to his own fertilizer program and then compare that to the previous years where he used conventional program.  They will also monitor soil and yield.  A big undertaking that I hope to report on again in the future.  I learned a lot of other useful information about no-till benefits, but I've gone lone enough for now.  But feel free to take a big drink of Indianapolis water next time you are there.