What would regulators find if they checked water coming out of your tile drains? Would tile water contain more nitrates and other nutrients than you would like?
Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, Ind., wasn’t afraid to find out. That’s why he agreed to participate in a study which began nearly a decade ago, and which continues today. The study analyzes water quality in a creek which runs through land he farms, and feeds Eagle Creek Reservoir, one of the reservoirs providing drinking water for Indianapolis. It also monitors the nutrient content of water in tile lines leaving farm fields and entering the creek.
The study began when Bob Barr, an educator and researcher at IUPUI (Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis) in Indianapolis, was charged with investigating water quality in certain streams feeding into Eagle Creek Reservoir. He soon recognized that Starkey, a longtime no-tiller who also uses cover crops, farmed differently from some of his neighbors. Barr’s goal was to see how farming methods affected the quality of water that wound up in the creek.
About six years ago Barr found funding to expand the study. He wanted Starkey to follow Tri-State Recommendations for fertilizer on part of a field that drains into the creek, and then use his own strategies on another field. Starkey doesn’t apply as much phosphorus and potassium as the Tri-State Recommendations call for.
“I’ve found I don’t need it — my no-till system is more efficient, and following Tri-State recs would cause me to apply more fertilizer and spend more money,” Starkey says.
In fact, he first balked at the expanded study because he didn’t want to follow the university recommendations on even one field. He relented, however, and the study began.
Many agencies and groups cooperated to make the study reality, both Starkey and Barr note. Starkey estimates that up to 20 organizations or entities have played a role in the process. The U.S. Geological Survey is a big player, agreeing to provide monitoring equipment in the stream to measure water quality 24/7, all year long.
“If there wasn’t a way to measure water continuously, people could argue that we could miss a major rain event, which might cause runoff or increase nutrient content in tile draining the fields,” Starkey says. “With the equipment in place, every event is captured.”
Matt Williams, a soils technician with the Indiana State Department of Agriculture who is headquartered in Hendricks County, says preliminary results after several seasons indicate that Starkey’s no-till approach appears to be working. So far, water in the stream before it gets to his farm contains higher levels of nutrients that water coming off his farm in tile lines.
Starkey isn’t surprised. “I’ve been confident all along that we were making better use of water in our no-till fields,” he says. “When you don’t have as much soil leaving the field, fewer nutrients leave, too. Plus, it doesn’t surprise me that there are lower levels in the tile lines.”
Starkey is also convinced that applying less fertilizer than the Tri-State Recommendations call for not only saves him money, but is also friendlier to the environment.
“They really need to be adjusted for farming today,” he believes. “They certainly don’t account for farmers who no-till and use cover crops. My system is simply more efficient.”