Water quality: Profitable farming can co-exist with clean water

Published 9:40 am Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Mankato Free Press

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Maybe there’s no magic bullet to improving water quality in Minnesota lakes and rivers, but there may be a partial solution out standing in a farmer’s field: cattle.

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Livestock production has always provided farmers an opportunity for profit — maybe more often than not — and a producer in Pope County has found a way to be a profitable farmer and one who pays attention to the impact his operation has on the water quality of the Chippewa River.

Dan Jenniges was recently profiled in a Star Tribune article that highlighted how farmers can grow crops that are friendlier to water quality than corn and soybeans. Jenniges has planted grass instead of row crops and rotates his cattle from pasture to pasture allowing the grass to regrow.

Cover crops like grasses, oats, wheat and alfalfa filter and stop runoff into streams even during heavy rainfall. The grasses stop soil runoff into the rivers and that, in turn, prevents nitrates and phosphorus contamination as well.

Cattle also provide a natural fertilizer through manure, so the need and cost for chemical fertilizer is eliminated.

Jenniges is part of a watershed management plan where nonprofit groups like the Minnesota Land Stewardship Project and the Chippewa River Watershed Project work with farmers to show how they can have a diversified farming operation that improves water quality and helps them make a profit.

The groups and farmers aim to increase the amount of land in cover crops in the watershed by 10 percent from 24 percent to 34 percent. If that can be achieved, the group contends the quality of the Chippewa River will improve. They know this by research that showed whenever 30 percent of the land near the river was cover crop or grasses (even sugar beets), the water quality was decidedly better.

It’s a surprising solution to what seems to be an insurmountable problem. The difficulty will be in helping farmers see how they can be profitable and getting them to try new business models.

At least in this case, the benefits seem to outweigh the costs.