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Farmers protecting Rice Creek

St. Olaf students Allie Raduege (left) and Nisha Albert sample water in Rice Creek in July 2018. Photo courtesy of Kathy Shea

By Alan Kraus, Cannon River Watershed Partnership

Increasingly, Minnesota farmers are being challenged to make a profit growing soybeans and corn while simultaneously, making our rivers and lakes cleaner. This is a tall order for any business, especially one that has to deal with the whims of 100-year rainstorms or mid-summer droughts.

To help area farmers with this daunting challenge, the Fishers and Farmers Partnership, Rice County Soil and Water Conservation District, St. Olaf College, Minnesota Department on Natural Resources, and farmers and landowners in the Rice Creek watershed are teaming up with the Cannon River Watershed Partnership in a project to protect the only trout stream in Rice County.

Beginning this fall, eight farmers will plant cover crops on about 800 acres of land in the Rice Creek watershed. Cover crops are plants like winter rye, turnip or oats that are planted sometime during or after the growing season of soybeans and corn to keep the soil covered between fall harvest and spring planting. These crops capture excess fertilizers and can improve the ecology of farm soils.

This research project will measure how planting cover crops can improve soil health and crop production while at the same time reduce fertilizer and sediment loads into Rice Creek.

The farmers in this project will plant cover crops on the fields for three consecutive years, report the costs to implement the practice and record the soybean and corn yield differences between cover-cropped fields and those without.

St. Olaf College will test field tile drainage water from cover-cropped fields and controls for nitrate so farmers can compare the level of nitrate fertilizer leaving tile lines. St. Olaf College will also monitor stream nitrate, total phosphorus, total suspended solids (sediment and algae) and aquatic insects for three years. At the end of the study period the DNR will conduct a fish survey. Results from these monitoring efforts will be compared to studies conducted in 2012 and 2015.

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