Farmers have dealt with some drastic weather patterns the last couple of years. You lived through a severe drought in 2012 and through an extremely wet spring in 2013. Aside from making you crazy with stress and worry, that combination also set up Illinois fields for some substantial nutrient runoff into local water supplies.
The Council on Best Management Practices (CBMP), funded by IL Corn and other commodity groups and agri-businesses, realized early on that the drought of 2012 was going to be bad news for water quality. It was almost a perfect storm – pun intended.
There was no rain during the 2012 growing season, which left the corn growing significantly less than anticipated in early 2012 and using significantly less nitrogen than farmers applied. That left a bunch of extra nitrogen sitting in the soil not being used by any plants. Then, heavy rains hit Illinois in early 2013 delaying planting season until much later than usual. All that extra rain flushed the extra nitrogen away from the fields and into the drinking water.
And actually, though we anticipated a big problem the problem was smaller than we thought. Did you read this? There wasn’t a larger problem in the Gulf of Mexico.
But there was one community significantly affected. Springfield, IL was dealing with higher than usual nitrates in their water and they had no water treatment system available to deal with it. The EPA standard is 10 parts per billion and the water in Lake Springfield got dangerously close. Springfield’s problems were greater than other central Illinois communities because of the soil types in that area and their water drainage capacity.
Enter N Watch. CBMP realized that this would be an issue so they alerted the city of Springfield early on. They then commenced N Watch to measure the nitrogen left in fields draining into Lake Springfield and determine a course of action to stop the runoff.
This year, N Watch has over 5000 soil samples over 300 different field sites. They are monitoring different practices, different soil types, and different nitrogen application timings to figure out how nitrogen moves throughout the soils and hopefully prevent this from happening again. Much of this research is in the Springfield area, but data points all over Illinois will help farmers identify the problem and create solutions.
One potential solution? Cover crops. Next week, we’ll learn a little more about cover crops, how they can help, and why you might consider planting them this winter. Hint – we’ve seen significant increases in productivity! What’s good for the land and water is good for the bottom line too!