What farmers are doing for Minnesota's water

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – Two Minnesota farmers shared their experiences with water and conservation during the Minnesota Division of the Izaak Walton League of America's 2017 Water Summit March 11 in Bloomington.

Aaron Peterson

Aaron Peterson's family has been farming near Shakopee and Eden Prairie in the Mankato watershed of the Minnesota River for more than 100 years. Peterson has seen the effects flooding and extreme rain events can have on the landscape.

When fields get drowned out for multiple years in a row, it's time to get serious about change, Peterson said.

"Putting the dishes in the sink to soak is not washing the dishes…it's time to scrub the pan," Peterson said. "We need to shift back toward natural balance."

Up until recently, Peterson and his family had farmed some of their land in a known flood plain "with blind hope," Peterson said.

However, frequent and longer flooding events continued to pile up. Located near the point where the Minnesota River becomes part of the Mississippi River, extreme water events along any part of the Minnesota can end up becoming a big problem on the Peterson farm.

In the Mankato watershed of the river alone, there are 1,564 miles of streams. As a result, the family has been looking elsewhere for farmland, with parcels in Hennepin, Carver, Scott and Sibley counties.

Increased flow from the Minnesota's tributaries has brought more sediment and nutrient runoff, Peterson said. The tributaries are becoming more channelized. Rampant field tiling has made for a short time from water falling from the sky to its entering the Minnesota River.

"All this creates an enormous ecological problem," Peterson said.

He would like to see fellow farmers diversify their management practices, trying out things like split application of nutrients, cover crops and no-till. More wetlands should be restored and the government should also actively enforce Minnesota's drainage law, statute 103E, Peterson said.

"This problem will not go away until an unknown portion of upland wetlands is restored," Peterson said.

Peterson acknowledged the difficulty in switching management adds in tight economic times but said that action needs to be taken regardless since the water situation is continuing to worsen.

He would like to see incentives for landowners to restore wetlands.

"Farmers are willing to listen if a fair value is placed on wetlands and the restoration process is simplified," Peterson said.

Tom Cotter

Some farmer investment in such renovations shouldn't be too much of a stretch if the ask is reasonable, said Austin-area farmer Tom Cotter.

"There is a difference between farming with a financial goal and doing it for your kids," Cotter said.

He's well-known for his work with cover crops, having been named 2016 Conservationist of the Year for Mower Soil and Water Conservation District and earning a Cover Crop Champion grant from the National Wildlife Federation recently.

He faces different water concerns than Peterson. Crop farming along Interstate 90, Cotter finds that rain events can sometimes leave water from surrounding areas flowing onto his land, but then being stopped by the slight increase in elevation of the highway.

"I have an unbelievable amount of water coming down on me," Cotter said.

To combat the deluge, Cotter has chosen to strip-till his corn crop and no-till his soybeans. He has been experimenting with cover crops for 18 years, off and on, but has been consistently using them for the past five years.

One year, after a canning pea crop, he planted a cover crop. The next year, he had a great corn crop in the same field, while corn in his other fields performed moderately.

"The only difference between (the canning crop field) and other fields was the cover crop," Cotter said.

Another trigger for his moving from conventional to conservation practices was a side business tile plowing, Cotter said. Areas without a cover had soil that smelled kind of dead, Cotter said. Fields that had had a cover crop smelled coffee-like and had a lot of worms.

Benefits Cotter has seen from cover cropping include weed suppression; easier tiling; better water infiltration, especially the past two years; better water retention, "the gas tank for my corn come August," Cotter said; cover crop root and earthworm channels that can move more nutrients; better soil health; improved nutrient holding capacity; and an ability to reduce chemical inputs and tillage.

"Cover crops do my tillage for me," Cotter said. "One millimeter a day, every day."

He favors single cover crop species to 17-way blends; whatever species seems right for the job, Cotter said. When there is not enough money to cover crop all his fields, Cotter focuses on getting his low ground covered.

No-till and strip-till practices have helped with erosion control and saved soil moisture, Cotter said. There is less residue on the field surface and less compaction below.

Originally strictly a crop farmer, Cotter has added 45 beef cow/calf pairs to his operation, which he has grazing some of his cover-cropped fields. He has them out from April 1 until as late as he feels they can go. Last season, they were out until Jan. 5. He also harvests some of his cover crops for winter feeding for the beef cattle. This saves him nearly $16,000 in feed costs and got him into the grass-fed beef market, Cotter said.

The first step to failure with cover crops is not planting any, Cotter said.

"Don't think you can't make it work in your field," Cotter said.

Instead, Cotter recommends networking with farmers who have succeeded with cover crops, being sure to plant the right thing at the right time and to not plant too deep. Mother Nature gets her say, but following those steps can help things go right, Cotter said.

Lisa Young, lyoung@agrinews.com Updated