Mike Paustian returned to the family’s heritage farm in 2008 which encompasses nearly 1,400 acres and a 1,200 sow farrow-to-finish hog operation. In addition to using no-till and minimum tillage, the Paustian’s began adding cover crops to hold soil in place, while scavenging nutrients from the soil and fall applied manure. Their goal is to build long term soil health and organic matter in their fields and improve water quality. They have used primarily cereal rye and oats on about 600 acres for over seven years.
Taking the next step to reduce nitrate loss from their farm, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer just north of their home in the summer of 2018 and are using drone technology to monitor the performance of their farm and conservation practices.
These practices were on full display at our field day last night as the Paustians shared their experiences and efforts to help improve water quality and soil health.
Kay Stefanik, assistant director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, set the stage with an overview of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and demonstrated how nitrate test strips can be used by farmers and landowners to check their local water quality. These test strips can provide a nitrate and nitrite concentration result in just 30 seconds and should be used multiple times throughout the year to provide a more accurate representation of the system. These strips are available through ISU County Extension offices or by contacting Jamie Benning, Iowa State Water Quality Manager.
After a short walk to the saturated buffer, Keith Schilling and Matthew Streeter, Iowa Geologic Survey, guided us through the installation process and ongoing monitoring of the site. Supported by an Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship grant, they are collected data through 2020.
Results from the first year of data indicate that the nitrate concentration leaving the saturated buffer is <2 mg/l whereas the control is measuring an average of over 20 mg/l. With good infield management of nutrients and the addition of cover crops, there is little nitrate entering the buffer and the soil microorganisms are then able to efficiently remove nitrate that does enter the system and release it as N2 gas.
Using their sampling gear, we were able to use a nitrate test strip and take a quick measurement during the field day. The strip revealed about 2 mg/l – consistent with the results from the on-going monitoring.
Back at the shop, Mike provided a quick demonstration of how he is using drone technology to monitor crop and conservation practice performance to help guide management choices for their operation. Using software to analyze the imagery, he was able to observe how his cereal rye cover crop fared during the very wet spring.
“It is clear on this map (lower left corner) where we ran out of manure two years ago. There is less rye growth in that area and we can now adjust our management decisions to help improve our system,” noted Mike. “Another result of using the drones, is our decision to use a tractor with tracks next spring on a field that showed signs of compaction.”
Whether you have access to drone technology or pick up some nitrate test strips from your local Extension office, you can use these tools on your farm to better inform your decisions and seek technical help from your NRCS office to help make some changes to your system to help improve the long term productivity of your farm.
If you are interested in hosting or attended an upcoming field day, feel free to reach out at 515-294-5429 or email@example.com.