Nathan Wiese of Verndale spends his summers making trips to area farm fields, collecting data about what’s happening just under the surface.

As an irrigation and nutrient management specialist for the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts in East Otter Tail and Wadena counties, he’s not alone in his pursuit to help producers make the most of their resources. It’s something most farmers in the area are also passionate about.

Wiese, along with a crew of SWCD staff members, made weekly trips to about 80 different farm fields in Todd, Wadena and Otter Tail counties in 2020. Each time, they went to help producers nail down just the right moments in which to turn the water on their crops, helping them preserve the resource as well as reduce the chance of nitrate leaching or runoff.

Large areas of this region of west central Minnesota produce an abundance of crops -- crops that are the backbone of these rural areas. But these same areas are at risk of nitrogen contamination from fertilizers that can seep through the region's sandy soils and leach nitrates into the groundwater.

The problem is nothing new to area producers, but the topic keeps floating to the forefront of conversations between those working in agriculture, conservation and health fields. How do you balance feeding the world while keeping local drinking water safe? It’s a question that must continuously be considered.

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“It’s that balance between them being able to produce a profitable crop, but yet do as little harm to the environment as possible,” says East Otter Tail and Wadena SWCD Manager Darren Newville.

Wadena and East Otter Tail County SWCD district manager Darren Newville talks about use of weather data to help with irrigation scheduling on a recent tour in Wadena County.
Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal
Wadena and East Otter Tail County SWCD district manager Darren Newville talks about use of weather data to help with irrigation scheduling on a recent tour in Wadena County. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal

Through a series of four meetings held with producers about three years ago concerning groundwater and agriculture, SWCD staff got a better idea of what the ag folks wanted to see. While farmers want people to know that they care about the environment and have been stewards of the land for years, they are also always on the lookout for ways to do better.

That’s what drove home a recent grant awarded to the SWCD from the Board of Soil and Water Resources. To cut back on nitrate leaching, SWCDs in Wadena and East Otter Tail counties sought out and were awarded in 2020 a grant of $217,300 to improve technologies meant to reduce nitrate leaching by 9 pounds/acre over at least 2,000 acres, totaling 17,800 pounds of nitrate reduction.

That’s achieved with modern updates to irrigation scheduling and fertilizer management through variable rate technology and soil moisture sensors, which better utilize and inform irrigators of when to fertilize, according to the grant language. East Otter Tail and Wadena SWCDs plan to establish precision management for variable rate irrigation in one field, soil water sensors in 20 fields, and 10 nutrient management plans for irrigation management on high and medium priority parcels. The SWCDs will also develop an assessment report detailing the local results for variable rate irrigation and soil moisture sensors that will provide results to local landowners and for future projects.

SWCD staff are currently looking to get feedback from producers on what technologies some may be willing to add to their toolboxes. New technology gives updates in real-time to producers so they don’t have to question their decisions so much. Updates on factors like soil moisture, humidity, transpiration and weather forecasts combine to help explain when and how much water is needed.

Newville says the grant isn't a large enough amount to go very far, but will hopefully get some technology on the ground in this area so producers can see the product at work and see for themselves whether it’s worth having in their fields. The grant should act as a cost-sharing option to help farmers buy the equipment and take ownership of it.

Wiese says postcards were sent out in early March and he hopes to hear back from producers by the end of March to get an idea of how best to move forward with this funding source.

What does the new technology look like?

For Minnesota Valley Irrigation in Wadena, one such product is variable rate irrigation, which allows for intelligent application, putting water and nutrients where they are needed rather than applying the same amount over an entire field that can have drastically different needs.

New in-ground sensors can feed real-time data to farmers about what’s happening under the surface. Because there are many different companies providing these technologies, the SWCD wants to give producers options, Wiese says.

“We don't want to limit the producer on who to work with,” he adds.

What’s already in play?

The SWCDs in Otter Tail, Becker, Wadena, Hubbard and Todd counties all offer irrigation scheduling assistance to help farmers make the best use of irrigation. The program offers information to help producers manage their irrigation pivots and soil moisture statuses by checking soil moisture, crop water usage and crop growth stages on a weekly basis.

The program is offered for corn, soybeans, edible beans, alfalfa, small grains and potatoes. The cost to participate in the program is $200 per field but decreases for those who enroll two or more fields.

Wiese says a complaint about this scheduling assistance is that it only provides weekly updates to the producer, compared to the daily updates many of them need as weather quickly changes. That’s where the new technology can come in extra handy. While no one can control the weather, producers do have a growing ability to control their irrigation.

Some of the guesswork is removed by the amount of weather watching that can now be monitored on NDAWN, including temperature, humidity, wind speed, evapotranspiration (crop water use) and rainfall.

Also in play in area counties is the Irrigation Management Assistant. This tool automates the irrigation scheduling program. It uses evapotranspiration data from the Ag Weather Network and soils data to track soil moisture status through the growing season.

While these options exist, Wiese says the number of fields and producers using these resources is limited.

“It's a small amount,” he says. ”Some producers might only do one field and extrapolate it to many fields.”

30 years in the works

East Otter Tail County began implementing irrigation scheduling 30 years ago. Things have improved immensely in that time frame. When irrigators first hit the scene, you might simply scoop up some dirt or keep an eye out for wilting plants. You might just wait to see what your neighbor does. These were high-pressure systems tossing water higher into the air, unlike the low-pressure systems of today that spray much closer to the plants.

Now, electronic sensors offer more of a scientific approach to moisture management. Computer visualizations can show a producer the wet and dry conditions that exist without actually taking a walk through the field.

More modern technology, if embraced by producers, can give them instant access to moisture levels every day on their smartphones or computers. The hope is that if this technology takes root here, these advanced methods will grow. If these methods prove beneficial to both producers and the groundwater, everybody wins.

About those nitrates

Nitrate is a compound that naturally occurs and has many human-made sources. It is in some lakes, rivers, and groundwater in Minnesota. You can’t see it, taste it or smell it, but it is here and, in some cases, at unhealthy levels. Consuming too much nitrate can be harmful — especially for babies, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. It’s often referred to as blue baby syndrome, where oxygen levels in a baby's blood are reduced by exposure to elevated levels of nitrates.

Nitrates become unsafe at levels over 10 mg/L. They can occur naturally at levels near 3 mg/L, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, or MDA.

Nitrate testing took place in four townships in Wadena County in 2013 at the start of township testing through the MDA. Wadena County was selected as a high priority because the county had the third highest percentage of wells greater than the standards compared to most other counties in the Central Sands network, a group of 13 counties in central Minnesota. At that time, there were numerous locations with high nitrate levels -- in 2012, Wadena Township had the highest percentage of vulnerable groundwater and highest percentage of row crop production compared to the other three townships in that particular survey, including Wing River, Thomastown and Aldrich.

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Newville looks back and believes there has been a lot of improvement since irrigation first became common in these parts. Unfortunately, there is not enough information to show significant trends in recent years, but the MDA notes a slight downward trend (there has also been a decrease in volunteers doing testing). As nitrates can move slowly in various soil types, nailing down what’s helping or hindering the aquifer is not as easy as turning a knob.

While high levels of nitrates are reason enough to look at ways to find a solution, rising costs of farming make it all the more important to limit the use of resources like water and nutrients so that only the amount needed is used, and nothing more. This may be one more way producers can continue to inch closer to that sweet spot.