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Published March 09, 2012, 07:16 AM

Irrigators find themselves in win-win situation

Luke Stuewe calls a pilot project focusing on nitrogen management and water quality a win-win for irrigators and water quality.

By: Carol Stender, Agrinews

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. — Luke Stuewe calls a pilot project focusing on nitrogen management and water quality a win-win for irrigators and water quality.

Stuewe, speaking at the Irrigators Association of Minnesota convention, said the project is focused on a five-county area —Otter Tail, Hubbard, Wadena, Todd and Becker — but, if successful, would be used in other parts of the state as well.

The concept is familiar. It involves planning, implementing the plan and evaluating the data using in-season imagery and stalk nitrate tests with field management records to find ways to improve nitrogen use.

The program started in Otter Tail and Wadena with 23 producers enrolling around 3,000 acres. Of the 40 to 49 fields, about 82 percent of them were irrigated.

"We are excited about it, but we need more time," he said. "We need additional years of data."

It's free to participate, but sign up is limited to 50 fields.

Field management data is collected in June and July with aerial imagery collected for each field. Stalk samples are collected in September and October. In December, participating farmers meet to share results.

The stalk test was developed in Iowa about a decade ago, Stuewe said. It looks at the nitrogen remaining in the stalk. Yield differences alone can't show areas where excess N was available.

"What we are doing is getting a snapshot of what was in the stalk to show how much nutrient was left in that field," he said. "...If we are able to help improve how you use N, that will help your bottom line."

The first year of the pilot project focused on stalk testing, he said. Nitrogen trials will be added this year. Funding is available for four to five replicated field trials.

Producers in any of the five counties can get involved, he added. Researchers are looking for about 50 corn acres with a field size of about 20 to 80 acres. Producers taking part will provide field management data and allow field access to researchers for the stalk testing.

Joining Stuewe to talk about the research project were Bruce Montgomery of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Darrin Newville with the East Otter Tail SWCD.

Discussion ranged from nitrogen to soil nutrition. Minnesota NRCS state conservationist Don Baloun said his agency is pushing soil health.

"We have producers in Indiana that, as a result of increased soil nutrients, have reduced their input costs by 50 percent," Baloun said. "If you guys can keep $200 per acre in your pocket, I would think that would be a favorable thing. We will make a push to work with you and see how we can improve soil health."

EQIP programs with irrigation options include the Water management Conservation Activity Plan and the Irrigation System sprinkler Low Pressure Conversion.

NRCS doesn't do cost shares anymore, Baloun said. Instead the agency is giving payment rates.

"You will know when you sign up for this practice exactly what you get paid," he said. "There are no bills and no receipts."

Another program is the Landscape Ag Energy Management Plan CAP 124. Some of the key practices in the program include cover crops, drainage water management, nutrient management and no till/strip till.

"We really need to start thinking of cover crops, he said.

Indiana and Illinois are using a highboy to interject cover crop seed into standing corn.

Through Drainage Water Management Planning, systems can be placed on the contour. A water gate allows adjustments according to grade. It can have a big water quality benefit with sub-irrigation. While the EQIP payment doesn't cover drainage tile, the NRCS will work with producers on outletting it to a wetland.

To check out the programs, contact the local NRCS office for details and payment rates.

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