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Stewardship Pays Off

November 9, 2010
By: Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Conservation and Machinery Editor
Control structures let Mississippi grower Gibb Steele hold water on fields or gradually drain it off, reducing soil loss and creating waterfowl habitat.  

When Gibb Steele of Hollandale, Miss., learned he had been named an Upstream Hero by the Conservation Technology Information Center, he was a little surprised. The Upstream Heroes campaign recognizes outstanding nutrient managers who apply fertilizer only as needed and make sure it doesn’t wash or leach off their farms.

To Steele, who operates Steele Farms with his son Gibson, Franklin Coleman and other partners, preventing soil erosion and fertilizer runoff is just common sense. “Nobody wants their soil washing away,” he says.

Most of his neighbors farm the same way he does, Steele says. But the irrigated rice and soybean grower acknowledges he was an early adopter of nutrient management techniques. At the time, he was thinking about profitability more than stewardship; but it turned out that spoon-feeding fertilizer, preventing runoff and no-tilling benefited the environment and his bottom line.

Steele Farms’ heavy Sharkey clay soils are high in phosphorus and potassium, so the only fertilizer needed is urea on rice. The operators have moved beyond the traditional practice of applying two-thirds of a rice crop’s nitrogen requirement before flooding and one-third after.

“Based on our consultant’s advice, we spoon-feed urea in four equal increments: before flooding, a week after flooding, at ¼" internode elongation and a week or 10 days after that,” Steele says. “That reduces the chance of losing nitrogen. On our soil types, it seems to increase rice yields. Spoon-feeding is no more expensive, because aerial applicators charge by the pound.”

For early-season fertilizer applications, which go on dry soil, Steele adds a nitrogen stabilizer to reduce the risk of nutrient loss.

Land leveling, levees and gated outlets help Steele prevent runoff. “We level to 0.15" of slope per 100',” Steele says. “It costs about $1 per cubic yard, and most fields require moving 300 to 500 cu. yd. of dirt per acre. But it’s worth the investment because of uniform water application, reduced runoff and higher yields.”

Drainage tools. Permanent turn rows around fields provide space to build temporary levees, which prevents water from running off when rice fields are flooded during the growing season. The levees are knocked down when fields rotate to soybeans and then are reconstructed when you go back to rice.

“Building turn rows costs about $50 per acre,” Steele says. “But without them, water gets away. University research shows that with turn rows and levees, farmers can use at least 30% less irrigation water.”

Drainage pipes under the levees are regulated with risers to hold water or gradually drain it off. “You can get by without risers, but if you don’t have them, you will have soil erosion,” Steele says.

In some fields after harvest, Steele sets the risers to flood the lower third or half of a field. That provides habitat for waterfowl—and recreation for duck hunters like Steele and his friends.

Holding water on fields until about March 1 also reduces weed growth. “Prior to planting, we have to spray glyphosate on the unflooded areas, but not on the flooded areas,” Steele says. “So controlling drainage pays agronomically as well as environmentally.”

Funds from USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program helped pay for some of the water-control structures and turn-row construction.

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Mid-November 2010

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