Mike Starkey's and Jack Maloney’s farms have been literally under a microscope for more than a decade. That’s when Bob Barr first realized there was something different about how these two Brownsburg farmers farm. He wanted to find out why water quality coming off their fields was better than that coming off many other fields. Barr is a research scientist with the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Both Starkey and Maloney no-till and use cover crops extensively. Part of the land each farms is included in the large watershed feeding Eagle Creek Reservoir, a source of drinking water for Indianapolis. That was one reason Barr began his investigation into the watershed.
A couple of years ago the stakes were raised when Barr and Starkey had the opportunity to be part of an edge-of-field water quality monitoring project. Finally, Barr would get data 24/7, 365 days per year, on flow and nutrient content of streamflow and flow from tiles draining Starkey’s fields. Several agencies made it possible, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service and U.S. Geological Survey. The main stream that collects water from Starkey’s farm on its way to the reservoir is now equipped with sophisticated USGS monitoring equipment.
As part of this six-year project, Starkey had to agree to fertilize a portion of his land according to Tri-state Fertilizer Recommendations to set a baseline. Then he could farm part of the land as he farms it normally.
It was nearly a deal-breaker, Barr recalls, as Starkey believes not only that the Tri-state (Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State universities) Recommendations are out-of-date, but also that he can raise crops in his system with significantly less commercial fertilizer than the recommendations suggest. In the end, he agreed to go along with the plans.
Barr reports that based on one year’s data, average nutrient levels in the streamflow are higher than average nutrient levels coming from tiles draining Starkey’s land. It’s not a surprise to Barr or Starkey, but it is a surprise to some, Barr notes.
“Before, we collected data at certain times, and it appeared nutrient levels coming from these field tiles were lower than the stream average," Barr says. The stream cuts though hundreds of acres, many conventionally tilled, before reaching Starkey’s land.
“The problem was many weren’t convinced because we didn’t have data on flow 24/7, all year long,” he says. “Some suggested higher levels of nutrient flow from the tiles occurred when we weren’t there. With constant monitoring, that’s no longer an argument.”
One nutrient Barr and his team tracks is phosphorus. It’s attracting attention nationwide, especially in the eastern Corn Belt, because algal blooms are increasing. The toxins certain algae produce can cause serious issues where water is used as a source of drinking water. The algal bloom that shut off the Toledo, Ohio, water supply for three days a couple of years ago stepped up the scrutiny.
“That’s why this project is important,” Barr says.
However, lower average phosphorus levels coming through tile lines isn’t the whole story. Surface runoff and peak tile flow must be considered. Discover what caused P spikes in stream data in a related story, "Why following newer fertilizer guidelines helps farmers, environment," also on this website.