Delta Farmers Prepare for Runoff Regulations

August 19, 2015 06:15 AM

Uncle Sam is likely coming to the farm’s back steps for increased nutrient regulation. When federal or state regulators lay down mandates regarding nutrient transport out of fields, farmers need to be ready for the inevitable. 

“There are powerful entities across the United States concerned about the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule because it allows the government to regulate literally at the end of your field. That’s driving our research programs,” said Jason Krutz, speaking at Stovall Farms, Clarksdale, Miss., at the Farm Journal College Improving Our Waterways field day, sponsored by the United Soybean Board (USB). 

Krutz, irrigation specialist with Mississippi State University, has been heavily involved in intense research on nutrient transport and irrigation efficiency application plots. He believes data shows a reduced tillage system with rye or another cover crop is effective in the Delta.

“Reduced tillage improves irrigation efficiency and appears to drastically reduce runoff, nitrogen and phosphorus loss as well," Krutz says. "At least in the Mid-South, a reduced tillage system with a cover crop may make a lot of sense for farmers.”

However, if a cereal rye cover crop is planted in the fall, killed at milk stage, and planted into two weeks later, then a crop like soybeans won't get in the ground until mid-May. Mississippi State data shows that after April 25-26, farmers lose a quarter bushel per day on yield due to late planting, according to Krutz.

“That’s a tough pill to swallow, but if the government is in your back ditch, you may not have a choice," Krutz explains. "Other cover crops could still have a winter-kill, yet build a lot of organic carbon, and have some surface protection, and still plant by March.”

In Mississippi, 80% of irrigated acreage is done by furrow. Protecting the soil surface and building organic matter is a driver toward good sustainability. Krutz emphasized the importance of all available tools -- whether irrigation delivery, no-till, or cover crops.

“When regulators get serious about sediment or nutrient transport out of the field, we have data showing that both no-till or a cover crop system drastically reduces erosion and nitrogen or phosphorus transport,” Krutz explains.

Dan Prevost, field conservationist with Delta F.A.R.M. (Farmers Advocating Resource Management), echoed Krutz’ emphasis on preparation before the arrival of regulation.

“We want to make a case to the EPA that we’re being proactive in Mississippi and we’re handling potential problems," Prevost says. 

Stovall Farms, the site of the USB-sponsored Improving Our Waterways field day, carries a rich Delta and Coahoma County history, and is a Cadillac conservation farm. Pete Hunter manages Stovall Farms and takes a proactive approach in conservation and soil health.

“The Delta is 80% cleared land and there’s lots of conservation that needs to go on right here," Hunter says. "Sure, it’s flat in the Delta, but that doesn’t mean the dirt doesn’t move around, especially with about 52” of rain per year.”

Hunter utilizes an extensive list of sustainable practices on Stovall Farms: crop rotation, cover crops, minimum till, no-till, grass waterways, filter strips, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for runoff prevention, low-stage weirs, soil sampling, variable-rate fertilizer application, and land forming with pipes and pads.

“The Delta has the last nutrient shot at the Mississippi River,” Hunter says. “We give the last injection to the river of something it doesn’t want. If everybody that drains into the Mississippi could just enact reduced nutrient loss practices on just 100 acres, think of the difference it would make in the Gulf of Mexico.”

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