Feeding our crops, protecting our water in a changing climate

Providing nutrients to crops is essential to farming practices, but is there a way to control water run off with better on-farm management tools?

Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that are essential for crop growth and profitability, but crop nutrients that escape from the field are potential pollutants. Cropland tends to be nutrient-rich and runoff from the farmstead, pastures and fields can transport sediment, organic solids, nutrients and other contaminants to surface waters. Cropping practices that stabilize the soil and quickly move crop nutrients into the root zone will protect water quality and build soil health. Many farms have adopted these practices. In fact, on-farm nutrient management has greatly improved in the past twenty-five years, yet water quality problems associated with algae blooms and oxygen depletion persist in Lake Erie, Saginaw Bay and other waterways.

Much of the most productive cropland in the Great Lakes Region has been improved with subsurface tile drains, a network of perforated tubes two to four feet below the surface to remove excess water. Research results and on-farm observation has shown that while conservation tillage reduces runoff, nutrient-enriched water from rainfall, snowmelt and other sources can quickly enter subsurface drains by natural channels in the soil formed by plant roots, soil fauna, and other natural phenomena. Soils under no-till crop management often have more continuous flow channels than tilled soils. In recent years we have seen an increase in more frequent, higher intensity storms and increased runoff. This trend is expected to continue presenting even greater challenges.

On March 6, there will be a conference at Michigan State University— A Matter of Balance: Feeding our Crops and Protecting our Water in a Changing Climate. Conference speakers will include national experts and experienced livestock producers who will explain how water, commercial nutrients and land applied manure move in the soil and impact water quality at the tile drain outlet. Attendees will learn:

  • How the interaction of weather, agricultural management practices, and nutrient and sediment movement impacts streams and surface waters
  • Practical management options for capturing nitrogen, phosphorus and other potential contaminants in the root zone for crop growth.
  • How to design systems that control and manage the quantity and quality of drainage water before it leaves the field
  • How controlled drainage and bioreactors can reduce phosphorus losses and improve crop growth.
  • Why changes in climate are likely to improve agricultural prospects with earlier planting dates and later end-of-season freezes, but with some negative consequences

A Matter of Balance: Feeding our Crops and Protecting our Water in a Changing Climate will be held on Friday, March 6, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the Kellogg Center on the Michigan State University campus. The conference was organized by the Michigan Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society and Michigan State University Extension. A conference agenda, speaker information, registration information and additional details are available at the SWCS website and through this link to conference info and registration.

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