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Conserving soil, water makes sense — and cents

FluxFactory/Getty Images farmer holding handful of dirt in field
TALKING SOIL HEALTH: “If all the biology in the soil is working for you, crops will perform better and yield more. The goal is to make the soil healthy enough so the biology works better, sequestering carbon at the same time,” agronomist Betsy Bower says.
Workshop participants explore reasons why it pays to conserve and improve soil and water resources.

Consider this statement. “The public knows farmers do the right thing, so you can do whatever you want and not worry about it.” That’s true, right?

“Those days are long gone,” according to Todd Feenstra, president of Tritium Inc., Elkhart, Ind. A hydrogeologist by training, his company is part of Midwest Water Stewards, an organization made up of farmers, researchers and businesspeople promoting water conservation.

At one time, the public perceived that all farmers cared about natural resources. However, Feenstra said that is not so today. He often assists clients in proving that their irrigation wells aren’t responsible for a homeowner’s well going dry.

“Stories of wells going dry go back to the 1980s and irrigation on land owned by Prudential Life Insurance in northwest Indiana,” recalled Max Armstrong, farm broadcaster with Farm Progress. Armstrong facilitated discussion at a workshop sponsored by the Elkhart County Soil and Water Conservation District. One session revolved around the need for common sense to earn more “cents” through conservation.

Most homeowner wells around Fair Oaks were very shallow, Armstrong noted. Irrigation pulled water levels below well depth. Fair Oaks Dairy operates that land today.

Drilling down

Here is a closer look at using soil and water wisely today:

Monitoring wells. The best way to refute misperceptions that farmers use water recklessly is to collect data, Feenstra said. His company promotes installation of monitoring wells near large irrigation wells. Data collected can document how much irrigation lowers depth of an aquifer.

For example, Feenstra pointed out that if you document a drop of only 1.5 feet in a monitoring well 50 feet from the irrigation well, it’s not logical that irrigation caused a homeowner’s well 1,000 feet away to dry up.

“It takes scientific data to show what is really happening, and to build a database for sound decision-making,” Feenstra said.

Soil moisture probes. Betsy Bower, an agronomist with Ceres Solutions, joined Feenstra in the discussion. She assists growers with both dryland and irrigated acres in west-central Indiana.

“We install a soil probe in irrigated fields with cooperating growers,” she said. “It provides measurements for soil moisture at numerous depths along the length of the probe. We can access measurements remotely. It’s valuable information when the grower must decide when to irrigate, and how much water to apply.”

Soil health. “Why is soil health important to both farmers and everyone?” Armstrong asked.

“It boils down to getting the soil to work for you,” Bower explained. “If all the biology in the soil is working for you, crops will perform better and yield more. The goal is to make the soil healthy enough so the biology works better, sequestering carbon at the same time.”

Cover crops. “Incorporating cover crops into your plans helps soil biology and promotes soil health,” Bower said. “Cover crops root deeper than soybeans. Growing cover crops after beans is a good way to prepare the soil for a corn crop next year.”

Bower used a soil moisture probe to measure impacts while a cover crop grew. She has documented that a cover crop increased water infiltration by about 0.5 inch over a one-week period.

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