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A lot of people have big hopes for a plot of land at Lansing, Minn. Northern Country Co-op regional manager Jeff Irvin hopes it will help end the finger-pointing between urban and rural members of the community about agriculture's impact on water quality in the Cedar River watershed. 


Area farmer Jim Kellogg hopes it will help identify agricultural practices that he and other farmers can adopt that will protect water quality while maintaining productivity. Nathan Augustine, project agronomist and certified crop consultant, Northern Country Co-op, hopes it will provide his member/customers with practices that provide environmental and economic benefits.


How can one piece of ground be expected to do so much? As the realtor says: location, location, location. It is in the right place, and this is the right time to put it to work examining the relationship between nitrogen application, water quality and a farmer's return on investment. 


Northern Country Co-op's board of directors and staff are making The Sustainable Answer Acre a local learning resource for growers with the support of Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the University of Minnesota. Here, technical staff install lysimeters to measure evapotranspiration of plants.

"The area north of Austin has been designated a nitrogen groundwater bullseye by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency," says Augustine. "Northern Country would rather take a proactive stand that defends grower productivity while reducing nitrogen losses."


Actually seven acres of land, the Sustainable Answer Acre (SAA) sits in the bullseye, close to the Upper and Middle Forks of the Cedar River on 80 acres of land owned by Northern Country Co-op. While plans are for the co-op to eventually build new facilities on the site, an area farmer currently crops it. 


In fact, it was area farmers who first encouraged a research initiative. Northern Country board member Tom Cotter has been working with cover crops for a number of years and suggested the co-op develop expertise in this area. Kellogg, a member of both Northern Country and the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District boards of directors, was an active proponent of developing a research approach to the water quality issue.


"Northern Country owns land in a very sensitive area as far as water quality is concerned," says Kellogg. "Water percolates very quickly through the sandy soil, and there is an adjacent population. My thought was to show what ag practices we can adopt to protect and improve water quality using factual information that no one will question." 


"In addition to our board members, we heard there was interest in setting up plots to study the nitrate and groundwater issue," says Irvin. "Dan Hoffman at Riverland Community College was looking for a site where students could do hands-on research into the issue, and Steve Lawler, Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, wanted to do research on the issue as well.  With our proximity to the Cedar River and having the land, it all fit together."


This project was initiated by (L to R) Jeff Irvin (Northern Country Coop staff), Tom Cotter (Northern Country Co-op board member and farmer cooperator), and Nathan Augustine (Northern Country Coop staff). Al Slowinski (R) is farming The Sustainable Answer Acre and surrounding land.

Lawler helped secure funding through an Innovation Grant from the Minnesota Corn Growers. The University of Minnesota (U of M) became involved, assisting with set-up and design and assigning a graduate student to track results with the goal of publishing a paper on the project. SWCD staff also provided technical assistance as needed. Environmental concerns contributed to Northern Country's involvement, as did a need for local agronomic data on efficient nitrogen utilization. In recent years the co-op has experienced a shift in its members' preference for nitrogen applications. 


"We used to do 80 percent of our nitrogen applications in the fall, but that is ending," says Irvin. "We now have to compress that into a few short weeks in the spring. We've been gearing up with equipment to apply urea and 32 percent, but we needed some good solid research on options we could offer our members. These plots will help provide unbiased, independently verified (U of M) data for our members to consider."


Kellogg is one of the area farmers who has made the change in nitrogen application. "We use a nitrification inhibitor in the spring," he says. "It pays. We can cut back on the amount we use, and in a wet year like this one, it pays big dividends. While we still put it on all at once, I can side dress if I want. "


The SAA is examining the effect of three replications of three different application methodologies carried out on conventionally tilled, reduced-till and strip-till cover crop systems. The latter plots were planted to cereal rye in the fall of 2018. Environmental impacts will also be measured. A total of 32 groundwater-monitoring wells have been placed in the plots to compare nitrate movement from the various methodologies. Those included applying the full, recommended rate of 130 lbs. of nitrogen pre-plant. A second methodology applied 80 lbs. pre and 50 lbs. side dressed at V6-V8. A third methodology applied 80 lbs. pre-plant, but utilized nitrate sampling, UAV (drone) imagery and nitrogen modeling to determine an optimum side dress rate. Northern Country staff utilized plant tissue testing and bi-weekly scouting to further evaluate crop health and the impact of the various practices. 


"The heavy rains we had this spring and early summer had an impact on available N," says Augustine. "As a result, the technology recommendation called for a nitrogen side dress rate of 87.4 lbs."


Local farmer and collaborator Rod Moe provides strip till application into cover crop at The Sustainable Answer Acre during spring 2019. 

In addition to the plots, buffer strips of native prairie are being established to either side of the plots. They provide easy access to the plots, buffer them from the conventionally farmed surrounding acres and serve as zero-rate checks for nitrate in the groundwater while also measuring nitrification naturally taking place in the prairie strips. 


"The challenging weather delayed installation of the wells and initial sampling to July 31," explains Augustine. "In the future, the monitoring wells will give us a better understanding of actual losses. Likewise, interseeding of cover crops which had been planned for V5 or V6 stage corn has been delayed to late August due to the weather and potential herbicide interaction. In many ways, this year is a set-up year as we get the plots established and work out the kinks. It will provide a data baseline for future plots."


A weather station located on site provides accurate tracking of rainfall and its impact on N movement. The data gathered from soil and tissue tests and scouting, as well as wells and weather stations, is vital from several standpoints, suggests Irvin. 


"If we don't address concerns over nitrogen applications and water quality in some shape or form, the state will do it for us, and we'll have to follow their guidelines," says Irvin. "At the same time, making better use of nutrients is the right thing to do."


Another key feature of the plots is the cover crops. Like the move of N application from fall to spring, Irvin notes increased interest by his members in the use of cover crops. Popular in other areas for their impact on soil health, they have seen limited use in the local area. However, they have worked for Cotter, and he is actively involved in the SAA plots. Irvin hopes to leverage what Cotter has learned and share the results with area farmers.


"We have to find what's going to work best in this area and how it can be economical," says Irvin. "Sustainability starts with profitability. If a farmer can't adopt a practice and be profitable, he can't do it."


Kellogg agrees, adding, "We have to be open to new ideas. I'm in a totally different soil type, but that doesn't mean the practices being looked at, such as cover crops, can't be adopted. I don't think they are a passing fad. I think they will be around for the long term."

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