University of Illinois Extension has a variety of educational resources and podcasts to help Illinois farmers, landowners and farm operators implement best management practices to reduce agricultural nutrient losses into watersheds. The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) aims to reduce nitrate-nitrogen and total phosphorus losses into rivers and streams by 15% and 25%, respectively, by 2025, and eventually by 45% for both nutrients. As over 40% of land in the United States is farmland, farmers are more connected to our environment than any other group. Therefore, how they manage their private lands can have a big impact.  

University of Illinois Extension’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) received a grant from the State of Illinois Environmental Protection Agency Bureau of Water to hire two Watershed Outreach Associates:   Haley Haverback and Jennifer Woodyard. The Watershed Outreach Associates offer educational programming and technical expertise to farmers and other stakeholders interested in reducing nutrient losses from agricultural sources. Haverback works in two watersheds listed as nitrogen priorities in the NLRS, which are the Mississippi Central/Henderson Creek Watershed and the Lower Rock River Watershed. Woodyard works in two phosphorus priority watersheds, the Embarras River Watershed and Little Wabash River Watershed.

One resource available on the most promising ways to reduce nitrogen loss are reviewed in the booklet, “Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest” 1 written by Laura Christianson, Jane Frankenberger, Chris Hay, Matt Helmers, and Gary Sands. While there is no universal approach for improving drainage water quality, these Ten Ways were identified as the most viable. Each one has features and characteristics that will be appropriate for some, but not all field circumstances. It’s important for the landowner to find the solution that works best for them. 1) Improved Nitrogen Management reductions-depends on the initial and revised practices and on weather and other management factors. 2) Winter cover crop effectiveness - depends on their establishment which varies with weather and other conditions. 3) Perennials in the cropping system – which can be grown almost anywhere, but their adoption is limited by availability of on-farm utilizations, markets and infrastructure. 4) Controlled drainage and 5) Reduced drainage intensity - reductions are higher when more drain flow occurs during the controlled period. The effectiveness of 6) Drainage water recycling, 7) Bioreactors, and 8) Constructed wetlands – which all three depend on the storage volume relative to the crop area being treated. 9) Two-stage ditches – which can remove thousands of pounds of nitrate, but the effectiveness percentage is limited because they usually only treat a fraction of the nitrate present and 10) Saturated buffer effectiveness – which depends on the portion of drainage water treated, and the organic matter content of the soils promoting denitrification.  You can read the full Ten Ways booklet online.

Many of these processes and solutions are explained in a series of podcasts organized by Haverback and Woodyard and produced by Todd Gleason @willag.org.  The podcasts feature interviews with agriculture and water quality educators from University of Illinois, Extension, soil and water and other agencies as well as farmers who give tips, explain processes and tell first-hand stories about real-life applications of strategies. Podcast topics include: Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy Overview; Cover Crops; Bioreactors - How to and a Farmer's Perspective; Fall Tillage and Fertilizer Dos and Don'ts; Conservation Tillage, Cover Crops and Side Dressing Nitrogen; and Handling Livestock Waste through Confinement, Pastures and Lots, Best Management Practices, Certified Livestock Manager Training, and the Economics of Conservation. Cllick here to find all of the Nutrient Loss Reduction podcasts

No one practice will be suitable on every acre, but every acre needs at least one practice. By doing their part in reducing nitrogen and phosphorus runoff, such as by adding cover crops, reducing tillage, or installing a bioreactor, landowners and farmers can help to improve our nation’s water quality. 

For more information, contact these University of Illinois Extension Watershed Outreach Associates: Haley Haverback, Illinois Extension, 358 Front St., Galva, IL 61434 hmh2@illinois.edu 309-337-5816 and Jennifer Woodyard, Illinois Extension, 1209 Wenthe Dr., Effingham, IL 62401  woodyar2@illinois.edu 217-347-7773

Reference

1Christianson, L.E., J. Frankenberger, C. Hay, M.J. Helmers, and G. Sands, 2016. Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest. Pub. C1400, University of Illinois Extension.