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A broad coalition supports research into nitrate reduction

By Jonathan Eisenthal

Minnesota Corn Growers Association

The Sustainable Answer Acre is an area located near Austin that is the setting for a multi-year Innovation Grant Project identifying best management practices that will protect water quality in an area more susceptible to leaching from nitrogen fertilizer.

The land that makes up the Sustainable Answer Acre was provided by Northern County Coop. The company’s regional manager, Jeff Irvin, proposed using the area for the study to identify the practices proven to grow crops sustainably in vulnerable lands.

The Northern Country Coop board of directors found Irvin’s vision convincing enough to devote the Sustainable Answer Acre to serious research into identifying conservation and soil health farming practices that prevent nitrates from entering rivers, streams and groundwater.

The chief partner in getting the project rolling has been Steve Lawler, resource specialist at the Mower County Soil & Water Conservation District. Lawler said the project is looking at three different nitrogen management practices:

• A full rate of nitrogen in the spring of the year, preplant

• A split application—one shot preplant and another at V4 or V5

• Another split application—one portion at preplant, and a second amount that’s adjusted according to the use of technology like chlorophyll-detecting photography, tissue testing, and the data-crunching power of the FieldView software.

Those three treatments are repeated twice, one set on acres under conventional tillage management, and the other set on a minimum till, cover crop plan. They hope to take the research through three full rotations of both crops on the eight-acre plot.

“All of the water that leaves this ground goes through the community and right over their wellhead and on to the Cedar River,” said Lawler. “We want the community to know (we are working to reduce nitrates). That’s the purpose of this site.”

The project was supported through the Minnesota Corn Innovation Grant Program, which invests in farmer-led research identifying conservation practices that reduce nitrate loss and protect water quality.

The collaboration itself might be the most exciting part of the project, according to Lawler. Financial support from the state’s corn growers; land and agronomists provided by Northern County Coop; Lawler representing the local Soil & Water Conservation District; and Riverland College sent aspiring agronomists to the project as part of their education.

“We have environmental, educational, private business all working on this. It’s a great collaboration. We work well together. We have one purpose even though we have individual interests,” Lawler said. “This is the only way things are going to work out in the long haul. This is how we are really going to advance the interests of food production and protection of natural resources, working together.”