Water is one of the most important things necessary to grow strong and healthy crops. Maintaining water quality is something we take seriously on the farm. That’s why there are several practices we have adopted to make sure our water is not contaminated by any of our crop protection methods.
On our farm, we have several irrigation ponds, drainage ditches, and source the water for our home from a well. No city water for us! That means it is incredibly important that we protect one of our most important natural resources. Also, we could get in a lot of trouble from various government agencies if we were polluting or contaminating our water.
So, here are some techniques farmers use to protect water quality on the farm and everywhere.
Integrated Pest Management
The reality is that we have to employ crop protection products (read: pesticides) to protect our crops from pests, weeds, and the like. If we didn’t, our crop yields would be incredibly diminished and the farm wouldn’t be profitable. But that also doesn’t mean we randomly and excessively spray large amounts of pesticides or herbicides on our fields. We utilize integrated pest management. That is, we only spray when we need to spray. We keep a close eye on our fields and wait to spray until pest populations are high enough to make a difference. Technology, such as GPS and drones, is making this process easier. We only use pesticides when they are actually needed.
When we do apply pesticides to a field, one method of protecting waterways is to employ buffer zones. Buffer zones are physical areas between the field with crops and any standing water. Usually these appear as grassy or weedy areas around the edge of the fields. While some products require a certain buffer zone, this is mostly done for good stewardship. Buffer zones protect the water because we aren’t spraying directly into the water, any drift is more likely to fall onto the grassy area, and any run off from the field will go into the grassy area.
Conservation or Limited Tillage
Conservation or limited tillage are production methods that do not disturb the soil through plowing. These methods help build up organic matter in the soil and reduce erosion. Commonly, erosion occurs due to water runoff after a heavy rain, or through wind. Erosion can be detrimental because the soil taken from the field may end up in waterways. Leaving the soil undisturbed, which means we leave the old crop in the field, helps reduce the instances of erosion. Building organic matter in the soil is also important for protecting water. The more organic matter in the soil, the more fertilizer the soil can hold. The more fertilizer that remains in the field, the less that ends up in our water.
In the same vein of conservation tillage, cover crops help by reducing erosion and can help build organic matter. Over time, the use of cover crops can reduce the amount of nutrients needed for the soil to produce a good commercial crop. These crops can also pull up nitrogen, which keeps it out of the waters.
Soil sampling is something we do in our fields on a regular basis. By taking samples of the soil from various parts of the field, we’re able to see exactly which nutrients the field needs. That makes our applications much more precise, because we’re only applying things to the field when it is needed. It eliminates the guessing game and needless applications. Technology is also helping us become more and more precise so that we recognize specifically which parts of the field need additional nutrients and apply only to that part of the field.
Following the Label
All restricted use pesticides come with a label which, by federal law, has to be followed by the applicator. The label is created pursuant to the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), which is implemented by the EPA. Before pesticides are released for use by farms, the EPA does an environmental assessment, which is incorporated into the label. By following the label on these pesticides, we are following EPA recommendations designed to have minimal environmental impact. For example, there is usually a maximum rate that can be applied to a field during a particular time period. A higher rate of application could have negative consequences, including for water.
Genetically Modified Crops
The use of genetically modified crops has given farmers the benefit of using less pesticides and herbicides. Round-Up Ready crops have greatly reduced the amount of herbicide needed to control weeds in any given fields. Having plants resistant to the herbicide makes the applications more effective and reduces the number of them required. Other GMO traits, such as the Bt trait, allows us to reduce or forego all pesticide applications to protect crops from specific pests.
Managing Livestock Waste
Managing livestock waste goes a long way in protecting our water. Farmers make sure that waste does not go into lakes, streams, creeks, or other bodies of water. Proper management of waste prevents the water from becoming polluted and keeps extra nitrogen and phosphorous out of the water.