Tag Archives: controling hypoxia

Earth Fix Boosts Production and Profit

More than a decade ago, it was becoming clear that runoff from farm acreage was choking fresh water flowing south from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Satellite images, water testing and production declines in fisheries pointed to a pending disaster if agricultural practices were not modified. At risk, the health of millions who depend on clean water, as well as industries that depend on healthy water.

Cover crops were introduced in a dozen states that border tributaries to the Mississippi, as well as along that great stretch leading into the Gulf. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency produced a report for Congress outlining the “successes” in that gigantic project. Here’s a link to a summary.

Here’s one small result, from efforts in Indiana:

The 2014 fall transect [study] estimated 1 million acres of living plant cover such as cover crops and winter cereal grains were planted on Indiana farms. The report also shows most Indiana farmers left their tillage equipment in the shed in the fall to protect their fields with harvested crop residues. Results for residues and undisturbed soil on harvested acres during the winter months include: 77% of corn acres, 79% of small grain acres, and 82% of soybean acres.

The fall cover crop and tillage transect occurred again in 2015, and according to the data, over 1.1 million acres of cover crops were planted in 2015, which is an increase of nearly 10 percent compared to the previous year and 225 times more coverage over the past decade. The fall tillage and cover crop transect will be conducted again in late 2016.

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In addition to keeping pollution from entering watersheds, the practice of cover cropping also makes a healthier environment for soil to heal. That, in turn, makes corn and soybean production more profitable, even in years when drought or low commodity prices carves into profits.

 

Cover Crops in the Midwest Saves Lives in the Gulf

Agricultural runoff has dramatically altered life in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Hypoxia, in essence the cutting off of oxygen, has choked off aquatic life in the Gulf. Continued practices will essentially kill off life, and the massive fishing industry will die with it. In the photo below, you can see the massive amount of farmland drained by the Mississippi River system into the Gulf.

Image result for hypoxia in the gulf photos

Cover crops can significantly reduce the amount of runoff, particularly nitrate, into the streams and rivers that supply the Gulf from the Mississippi River. In fact, in a study conducted by Eileen Kladivko (Purdue Univ.), Tom Kaspar (USDA-Iowa) and others, they estimate that the adoption of cover crops more uniformly by farmers, in just five Midwest states, can reduce the amount of nitrates by an estimated 20%. These five states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan) are responsible for almost HALF of the nitrate loading in the Gulf.

Here’s a link to the study (click here)

The study looked only at cereal rye as a possible cover crop. Use of annual ryegrass has benifits over cereal rye.

  • It has deeper roots, which means deeper nutrients and moisture for corn and soybeans. Deeper roots also means less compaction
  • Annual ryegrass is a scavenger of nitrogen. In addition to saving on inputs of fertilizer, annual ryegrass stores nitrogen and then yields it to the corn in the spring, when the grass is killed.

Check out the other differences between annual ryegrass and cereal rye in this publication.¬†Among other things, cereal rye can tie up nitrogen too long, thus requiring added inputs for corn growth. And, cereal rye can grow too much on the surface (6 -7 feet) and thus make it difficult to plant into in the spring. Annual ryegrass, on the other hand, releases nitrogen in time for the corn to use efficiently. And it’s root mass creates more biomass in the soil, thus creating more food for worms and microbes, more organic matter and healthier soil.

Annual Ryegrass, Cover Crops in General are the Wave of Ag’s Future

Progressive Farmer magazine published an article by its Ag Policy Editor last week advocating the use of cover crops, especially this year, due to the potential for winter crops to sequester nitrates left in the field from the foreshortened corn crop season.

You can read the whole document here: Advocating for the Soil

Statistics indicate that less than 1% of farmers in the “Upper Mississippi River, Great Lakes and Missouri River basin” were planting cover crops in 2007. My belief, having seen firsthand the growth over the past decade, suggests that the increase in cover crop use since 2007 has absolutely gone off the charts.

I’ve been told that cover crop seed sales (and with annual ryegrass near the top of popular choices) doubled last year (2011) and tripled in the year before that.

Part of the increase has been publicity and the cost-sharing programs rolled out by various governmental agencies. In addition to cover crops being great for soil building, a lot of folks are looking at cover crops as the antidote to hypoxia in various bodies of waters: Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes and all the rivers feeding those massive bodies of water.