Farmers enact proactive water conservation approach
Uncle Sam is likely coming to the farm’s back steps. When federal or state regulators lay down mandates regarding nutrient movement beyond the field, producers need to be ready for the inevitable.
“There are powerful entities across the U.S. concerned about the Waters of the U.S. [WOTUS] rule because it allows the government to regulate literally at the end of your field,” says Jason Krutz, irrigation specialist with Mississippi State University (MSU).
Krutz has been involved in intense research on nutrient transport and irrigation efficiency application plots. Data show a reduced tillage system with rye or another cover crop improves irrigation efficiency and drastically reduces runoff as well as nitrogen and phosphorus losses, he says.
However, if a cereal rye cover crop is planted in the fall, killed at milk stage and a crop is planted into the field two weeks later, then a crop such as soybeans doesn’t get in the ground until mid-May. MSU data show after April 25, farmers lose a quarter bushel of yield per day due to late planting.
“That’s a tough pill to swallow, but if the government is in your back ditch, you may not have a choice,” Krutz says. “Other cover crops could still have a winter-kill, yet build a lot of organic carbon, have some surface protection and still plant by March.”
In Mississippi, about 80% of irrigated acreage is done in-furrow. Protecting the soil surface and building organic matter drives sustainability. Krutz emphasizes the importance of using all tools—irrigation, no-till and cover crops.
Dan Prevost, field conservationist with Delta F.A.R.M. (Farmers Advocating Resource Management), also emphasizes preparation before regulations arrive: “We want to make a case to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that we’re being proactive and handling potential problems.”
Stovall Farms, Clarksdale, Miss., carries a rich Delta and Coahoma County history and is a Cadillac conservation farm. “The Delta is 80% cleared land, and there’s lots of conservation that needs to go on right here. 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,” says Pete Hunter, Stovall Farms’ manager.
Hunter uses an extensive list of sustainable practices on Stovall Farms: crop rotation, cover crops, minimum till, no-till, grass waterways, filter strips, 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 explains. “If everybody that drains into the Mississippi could enact reduced nutrient loss practices on just 100 acres, think of the difference it would make in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Muddied WOTUS Waters
The future of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule is legislative bedlam. On Aug. 27, one day prior to implementation, the hotly contested WOTUS was knocked back by North Dakota Judge Ralph Erickson. He gave the legal nod to a preliminary injunction seeking to block WOTUS in 13 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. EPA claims the rule is in effect for the remaining 37 states, but farmers and agriculture groups are lining up with challenges.
WOTUS regulatory strength is backed by ambiguous wording, offering no set jurisdictional boundaries. The rule would extend federal control of the Clean Water Act well beyond navigable waters and directly onto farmland—an expansion of regulation strongly opposed by many agriculture producers.