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Water quality tools used in modern agriculture

Precious Resource, Precision Solutions

Water Quality Tools used in Modern Agriculture


Farmers often look to nature for solutions, especially when it comes to water quality.

Chip Bowling’s connection to Maryland’s Western Shore is ancestral. His family’s farming roots in the region date back to the mid-1700s. Those roots are inextricably linked with the Chesapeake Bay. In more than 50 years of living there, he has spent almost as much time on or in the water as he has anywhere else. Bowling farms 1,600 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, and grain sorghum in Newberg, Maryland, situated directly between the Wicomico River and the Potomac River, which feed into the Chesapeake Bay.

A Watershed Bursting With Plants and Aquatic Life

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed—made up of all the waterways that flow into the bay—occupies 64,000 square miles and is home to 18 million people. It’s legendary biodiversity, combined with its proximity to Washington, D.C., make it a focal point for habitat preservation and water quality discussions in the region.

[unex_ce_indent_outdent_images layer-name="section 1b" headline_markup="" img="3068" image-filename="image_1-1.jpg" image_caption="Image Caption Text" image_caption_color="white" id="content_kh8hbo8s3" post_id="1999"] <h4>A Watershed Bursting With Plants and Aquatic Life</h4><p style="color:#5f5e65">The Chesapeake Bay Watershed—made up of all the waterways that flow into the bay—occupies 64,000 square miles and is home to 18 million people. It’s legendary biodiversity, combined with its proximity to Washington, D.C., make it a focal point for habitat preservation and water quality discussions in the region.</p> [/ce_indent_outdent_images]

Commitment to Water Quality and Continuous Improvement

Bowling is justifiably proud of his family’s legacy in the region, especially as it pertains to water quality. His family has been using cover crops for nearly 50 years, and they were using conservation tillage long before it became popular across the nation.

And he’s also a lot like other farmers across the country—he’s always looking to get better. Many farmers and farm organizations use the phrase “continuous improvement” to describe this viewpoint of environmental sustainability. By that they mean there is no end point to reach, but rather, farmers should treat every season as an opportunity to get better at some aspect related to conservation of resources.

Spotlight on the Chesapeake Bay

In 1997, a pfiesteria outbreak led to a large fishkill in the bay, after which investigators identified the use of chicken manure fertilizer as a probable cause. Phosphorous is one of three key macronutrients all plants need to grow, along with nitrogen and potassium, and chicken manure is prized for its high concentration of phosphates.

Image Caption Text

[unex_ce_side_by_side_images layer-name="section 1d" rear_image_url="3069" rear_image_url_filename="18-MONPA-00071_side_side_1-1.jpg" front_image_url="3070" front_image_url_filename="18-MONPA-00071_side_side_2-1.jpg" image_caption="Image Caption Text" image_caption_color="white" image_location="image-left" id="content_f5pbciy2f" post_id="1999"] <h4>Spotlight on the Chesapeake Bay</h4><p>In 1997, a <a target="_blank" href="http://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/07/us/a-chesapeake-parasite-is-killing-fish-and-making-people-ill.html">pfiesteria outbreak</a> led to a large fishkill in the bay, after which investigators identified the use of chicken manure fertilizer as a probable cause. Phosphorous is one of three key macronutrients all plants need to grow, along with nitrogen and potassium, and chicken manure is prized for its high concentration of phosphates.</p> [/ce_side_by_side_images]

By 1998, a series of regulations were introduced that placed strict controls and limits on fertilizer application. As a result, all farmers are required to maintain a detailed nutrient management plan.

Bowling takes stewardship of natural resources seriously, which is one of the reasons he farms with modern agricultural technology. The combination of agronomic practices inspired by nature, precision application technology, a detailed nutrient management plan, and modern GM seeds allows him to be effective and efficient.
[unex_ce_article_full_width_photo layer-name="breaker 1" img="3071" image-filename="breaker_1-3.jpg" id="content_0io8i14vp" post_id="1999"] <h5 style="max-width:900px; margin:0 auto"><span style="color:#FFFFFF;">Bowling takes stewardship of natural resources seriously, which is one of the reasons he farms with modern agricultural technology. The combination of agronomic practices inspired by nature, precision application technology, a detailed nutrient management plan, and modern GM seeds allows him to be effective and efficient.</span></h5> [/ce_article_full_width_photo]

Quality

Farming around water requires a combination of tools and practices. Because they understand the importance of clean water for everyone, farmers aim to minimize the impact of farming on the surrounding water. For the past few decades, the combination of nature + planning + technology has delivered results.

Developed in part through close observation of nature’s own systems, agronomic practices like no-till, cover crops, and buffer strips play a critical role in the farm-water relationship. 

Water quality is closely tied to soil erosion, and no-till, cover crops, and buffer strips work together to keep topsoil, and the nutrients it contains, in the farmer’s fields where it belongs. Buffer strips–wide sections of grass planted between fields and waterways–act as filters that catch sediment and nutrients after heavy rains, and Bowling believes they have provided great value in his region. He’s even invited other farmers to come witness the benefits of buffer strips firsthand.

“We had a field day in May. Two days before, we got 4 inches of rain. We still had water running through buffer strips, and we could show them that the buffer was catching the water, which was all clear.”

The clear water meant that no sediment was being washed into the local waterways.

“The mandatory plan has made me a better farmer,” he says. “My yields are actually going up.”

Chip Bowling took over his family’s farming operation just as the Chesapeake Bay nutrient restrictions were being implemented, and he was skeptical at first. But after just a few years, he began observing the benefits. At the same time, he has seen improvements in the plant life, water quality, and aquatic life in the years after the mandate.

Bowling believes the most important part of his approach to water stewardship is his nutrient management plan. All of his fields touch water, so that plan helps him pay close attention to how and where he applies fertilizer. Over 98 percent of farmers in Maryland use a similar plan, as part of a concerted, watershed-wide effort.

[unex_ce_indent_outdent_images layer-name="section 2d" headline_markup="" img="3073" image-filename="image_2b.jpg" image_caption="Image Caption Text" image_caption_color="white" id="content_daa9fm7s0" post_id="1999"] <p style="color:#5f5e65">Bowling believes the most important part of his approach to water stewardship is his nutrient management plan. All of his fields touch water, so that plan helps him pay close attention to how and where he applies fertilizer. Over 98 percent of farmers in Maryland use a similar plan, as part of a concerted, watershed-wide effort.</p> [/ce_indent_outdent_images]

As part of that plan’s guidelines, when preparing for the growing season, all farmers calculate the maximum amount of nitrogen they can use by looking at their crop production yields over the previous four years. Those numbers tell them exactly how much fertilizer they can apply on every acre. Since Bowling began doing so, he has noticed the improvement in native wildlife and aquatic populations.


All About Precision and Accuracy

The plan’s emphasis on nutrients and yield places a premium on precise calculation and accurate distribution of his nutrients.

Because of this need for extreme precision, Bowling uses GPS guidance on his planters and sprayers, which are accurate down to one inch. This comes in handy when navigating the small, oddly shaped fields common to the region. He can shut equipment off row-by-row, to ensure no fertilizer is wasted. These techniques allow him to provide what his crops need while ensuring the local waterways remain healthy.


Seed Technology Makes It All Possible

When talking about his nutrient management plan, Bowling emphasizes the important role played by his GM (genetically modified) seeds. Herbicide-resistant seeds helped support a major movement toward conservation tillage during the mid-1990s, and Bowling credits the practice for making a major impact. The primary reason most farmers till is to control weeds, and GM seeds can be given herbicide resistance to make tilling unnecessary. By not tilling the ground, farmers keep their precious topsoil in their fields, drastically reducing the potential for erosion during rainfall.

No-till greatly improves water infiltration–the capacity of the soil to absorb and hold water during rain. Tilled fields (at left) often suffer ponding and erosion during heavy rains, as the water that falls leaves the field instead of being absorbed by the residue-covered soil.

“We haven’t used a chisel plow on our land in 25 years. Erosion is almost non-existent on our fields because of the combination of GMOs and no-till. Without GM technology, I can’t be no-till.”

[unex_ce_article_full_width_photo layer-name="breaker 2" img="3074" image-filename="breaker_2-3.jpg" id="content_vleravif1" post_id="1999"] <h5 style="max-width:800px; margin:0 auto"><span style="color:#FFFFFF;">“We haven’t used a chisel plow on our land in 25 years. Erosion is almost non-existent on our fields because of the combination of GMOs and no-till. Without GM technology, I can’t be no-till.”</span></h5><p> </p> [/ce_article_full_width_photo]

Reaching Out to Other Farmers and Conservation Groups

The progress made by Maryland farmers over the past two decades offers a model that could be replicated elsewhere, according to Bowling.

“I was just talking to Ohio Corn and Wheat last week,” says Bowling. “They’re having meetings right now with their governor. I’ve been to Iowa, and I’ve been to Mississippi and Arkansas. My positions with NCGA (National Corn Growers Association) and USFRA (United States Farmer & Rancher Alliance) have allowed me to travel. My message to other farmers is to be proactive. I bring my nutrient management plan with me.”

While he knows the nutrient management plan has provided benefits, Bowling also points out what many water quality experts have said: there are other sources of nitrate and phosphorus pollution in the bay. Those include septic systems, municipal waste facilities, commercial and residential fertilizer use, industrial waste water, animal feedlots, and landfills.

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[unex_ce_side_by_side_images layer-name="section 5b" rear_image_url="3075" rear_image_url_filename="side_side_C1.jpg" front_image_url="3076" front_image_url_filename="side_side_D1.jpg" image_caption="Image Caption Text" image_caption_color="white" image_location="image-left" id="content_0mhu8o8xq" post_id="1999"] <p>While he knows the nutrient management plan has provided benefits, Bowling also points out what many water quality experts have said: there are other sources of nitrate and phosphorus pollution in the bay. Those include septic systems, municipal waste facilities, commercial and residential fertilizer use, industrial waste water, animal feedlots, and landfills.</p> [/ce_side_by_side_images]

He notes that farmers have held up their end of the bargain, but more work remains from other industries if the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and others like it across the nation, is to continue its path toward improved water quality.

Water quality advocates in modern agriculture are also working hard to build alliances with like-minded leaders in other conservation spaces. Bowling and his peers in agricultural advocacy have recently established a relationship with the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation, which lobbies on behalf of hunting, fishing, and conservation organizations. These groups have a long history of water and habitat stewardship, making them natural allies with modern agriculture. The fact that farm leaders and environmental leaders are having these conversations is very good news for the long-term future of water quality in the U.S.

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