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Managing runoff on the farm

There’s a movement afoot in the United States to reduce nutrient loss on farmland. As a staff agronomist with MFA Incorporated, Adam Noellsch is pleased to play a role in finding solutions.

“Preventing nutrient runoff can save costs and increase yields for farmers and ranchers,” said Noellsch. “It’s also just good stewardship.” He helps farmers and other agronomists develop Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans from MFA headquarters in Columbia, Mo. Livestock nutrients are part of the focus.

As Noellsch pointed out, agricultural runoff is considered a major contributor to nutrients in watersheds that eventually create hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups and food retailers like Wal-Mart are campaigning to reduce nutrient runoff.

Noellsch and other MFA agronomists like to talk about the 4 Rs of nutrient stewardship, which involves placing the right nutrients at the right rate, at the right time, in the right place. “The 4 Rs are gaining momentum among producers,” Noellsch said.

“MFA has a unique capacity to implement and drive adoption of the 4 Rs,” he added. “Our impact in our trade territory is huge. We have crop scouts and sales personnel in almost 200 locations, allowing us to reach 45,000 farmers in Missouri and surrounding states. This translates into more efficient use of nutrients, meaning more profit for producers, less loss to the environment, and an improved image with consumers.”

“We can suggest best management practices, but the motivation has to come from the producer,” Noellsch said. “At the end of the day, farmers want their operations to be sustainable because it’s their livelihood.”

More cows mean more manure

Virgil and Susan McDonald milked 300 cows on their farm near Crane, Missouri, until 1997, when they switched to raising hay for other producers. Two years ago, sons Ethan and Evan, ages 21 and 18, expressed an interest in joining the operation. It was time to milk cows again.

“It used to be hard to get the help I needed to milk 300 cows, but now my sons can help,” McDonald said. “My sons love the farm, and I enjoy working with them.”

Today the McDonalds milk 75 Holsteins, and plan to increase the herd to 100 or more. Expanding means more manure—and you have to put that manure somewhere. Virgil turned to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and to MFA for help in designing an efficient new manure management system.

In warm weather, the herd grazes on the farm’s pastureland. In colder months, the cows hang out on steep, rocky hills near the milking parlor. The rocks make moving manure difficult, and they’re tough on machinery.

This year, McDonald plans for a contractor to pour concrete for the floor in a new covered building where the animals will be fed in the future. The McDonalds will scrape manure into a pit. Later, they’ll load it onto a spreader and broadcast it on the family’s cropland.

“We usually have good weather here, but when cows get muddy it can lead to mastitis,” McDonald says. “When cows are healthy and happy, they produce more milk.”

The covered building and its manure system will also prevent rain from washing animal waste into waterways.

NRCS provides financial and technical assistance for conservation improvements, including part of the concrete pad in McDonald’s new barn. In 2014, NRCS investments in conservation practices on Missouri farms and ranches totaled more than $25 million. The number of contracts, which may include multiple participants and farms, was 1,315. The contracts covered 293,819 acres.

“We like to see roofed operations,” said Steve Wilson, the NRCS resource conservationist who worked with McDonald. “That means less chance of contaminated waterways.” NRCS may also help the family plant an evergreen windbreak to reduce energy consumption in cold months.

The McDonalds plan to truck wood shavings in from nearby sawmills as bedding in the barn to further enhance cow comfort. They’ll scrape used shavings into the manure pit.

NCRS required McDonald to work with a certified independent agronomy expert to create a comprehensive nutrient management plan.

“I’ve worked with MFA all my life, and that’s where I went first,” McDonald said, adding that he purchases services and supplies from Cooperative Association Number 86, an MFA affiliate in Aurora, Missouri. “We hired MFA to help us decide where to put the manure and analyze its value. Our manure has very little nitrogen—but nitrogen evaporates into the air quickly anyway. We will need to add nitrogen and potassium to our fields. The main runoff concern with our manure is phosphorus.”

MFA creates CNMPs for producers who are expanding livestock operations, building terraces or implementing other good stewardship management practices. MFA technical service providers develop five-year plans for efficient manure and commercial fertilizer use.

“We faced challenges with McDonald’s operation due to some steep slopes and the large amount of manure produced by the dairy cows,” said MFA’s Noellsch. “Our solution was to use a couple of flat fields that McDonald owns a few miles away, where he can spread manure to add nutrients to crops he grows there.”

Manure won’t be spread on slopes with 12 percent or higher grades, as this would result in manure running off too quickly. MFA used the Missouri Phosphorous Index to determine remaining areas suitable for spreading manure. The phosphorous index considers potential P loss factors, including the soil’s existing P levels and possible erosion.

In eastern Kansas, tire tanks are the latest trend.

Doug Eden’s cattle ranch may not exactly be the Garden of Eden, but he likes improvements he’s made in the last two years to reduce stock pond contamination.

“We were concerned with soil erosion and water quality,” said Eden. He and his wife Chelle and their son Jon raise 300 Angus cow-calf pairs on 2,500 acres near Fort Scott in southeastern Kansas.

Eden heard that the Kansas Watershed Restoration Protection Strategy (WRAPS) program could help fund projects he was considering. He then met Herschel George, a watershed specialist with Kansas State University who works with WRAPS in eastern Kansas.

In 2013, Eden made the following improvements to an 80-acre field with a pond.

  • He sowed 80 acres with a fescue infected with a “friendly” endophyte, a grass promoted by K-State that prevents erosion and is more digestible to cattle than other fescues. He ordered the special fescue from his local MFA location, AgChoice of Hepler, Kan. It costs four times more than ordinary fescue, but Eden believes it’s worth it.
  • He fenced around a pond to keep cattle from contaminating it when they drank.
  • He built the enclosure big enough to store large hay bales, keeping cattle from clustering around the feed.
  • He piped water from the pond to an inexpensive water tank that he and George installed nearby. Gravity-fed fresh water is piped into the bottom of a 30-inch tire tipped on its side. During cold weather, Eden opens the small winter-flow valve to prevent the water from freezing; a pipe inside the tank captures overflow and siphons it away from the area.

“Herschel George is an expert in designing water projects,” Eden said. George came out to the ranch, shot elevations to assure water flow, and made sure the pond had enough capacity and pressure to feed water to the tank. He gathered supplies and helped Eden install the system. He helped with paperwork to obtain cost-share funds. NRCS covered part of the costs, and WRAPS contributed additional funds.

In 2014, George helped Eden install a similar project in another pasture. “This type of waterer costs less than $500, and has become popular in this area—even at feedlots,” Eden said.

There are many WRAPS programs in Kansas, each representing a different watershed, according to K-State’s Dan Devlin, director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment, and the Kansas Water Resources Institute. The Environmental Protection Agency funds WRAPS, and the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment administers the funds. Certain watersheds have been targeted for cost sharing.

In the past year, 491 producers installed WRAPS-funded best management practices on 37,783 acres, with WRAPS providing $1.76 million.

“It started 10 years ago, and now many watersheds have plans and funding for cost-sharing and education,” Devlin said. “We’re really making progress in working with landowners, including small livestock feeding operations as well as those who raise cattle on pasture. It’s all voluntary, and we’re seeing real water quality improvements.”

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources also offers a cost-sharing program. Since the DNR’s Soil and Water Conservation Program launched in 1982, it has funded 217,000 contracts with a total of $645 million.

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