CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois Extension received a $1.5 million grant to help farmers reduce nutrient loss into Illinois streams and rivers.
The five-year grant from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will provide funding for an agricultural water-quality team of University of Illinois researchers and for two watershed coordinators, whom the Extension will hire to work with farmers to implement best practices.
“Water quality is a huge issue in Illinois,” said George Czapar, director of the UI Extension.
In 2015, the Illinois EPA created a strategy to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff over concerns about the large “dead zone” created each year in the Gulf of Mexico.
The strategy should also have some benefits for Illinois water, Czapar said.
“We’re looking to reduce loss as far up as we can, rather than waiting until it reaches the Gulf,” he said. “If we can reduce or minimize loss that we have within Illinois, that’s a benefit to our rivers and streams here.”
The strategy, called the Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, promotes best practices for farmers, such as using cover crops or woodchip bioreactors, which remove nitrate from the runoff.
The best practices are starting to catch on.
About 70 percent of Illinois farmers know about the NLRS best practices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and usage of the best practices has more than doubled since 2011.
But it’s still the early stages, which is why the Extension says the grant it received is needed; researchers are still studying what methods work best to keep the nutrients in the soil.
The water quality team includes seven researchers at the UI College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, from agronomists to biological engineers.
These scientists will provide technical support for the Extension coordinators working with farmers to implement the best practices.
“Being connected to the scientists on this team is important,” said Trevor Sample, the Illinois EPA’s NLRS coordinator, in a news release. “We want the watershed coordinators to not only provide outreach and education, but also serve as technical advisors on practices like cover crops and bioreactors.”
The coordinators funded by the grant will work in two separate parts of the state.
One will work in the Embarras River and Little Wabash River watersheds, and the other in the Lower Rock River and Mississippi North Central River watersheds of northwestern Illinois.
“The watershed coordinators will play a key role in implementing the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy by providing outreach and technical assistance to farmers and stakeholders in select priority watersheds,” said Illinois EPA Director Alec Messina in a news release.
The best practices are gradually becoming more popular among farmers.
Dirk Rice, who farms near Philo, has been using cover crops since 2013.
“And I haven’t had any problems,” he said.
Rice grows cereal rye on his bean fields over the winter and early spring, and then kills the cereal rye off before planting his beans. This should keep more plant material in his fields, instead of it draining off.
“When you look at the structure of the soil, you can really see a difference versus conventional tillage,” Rice said.
By keeping more nutrients in the soil, cover crops should allow farmers to use less fertilizer and save some money.
While Rice said cover crops have been worth it for him, he said it’s too early to tell whether he can use less fertilizer.
And he said the state’s runoff strategy is helping to spur more research into what techniques are economically viable for farmers.
“It will take years to get a database to tell you what practices are effective and how effective they are,” Rice said.
While early research has shown these techniques can save farmers money, Rice said it’s still early and that some farmers might be wary of changing how they manage their farm, especially with low grain prices the last few years.
“You’re asking for a fairly major change in the way people have done things. A lot of people are just now starting to try a few acres,” Rice said. “This could be something where it takes a generational change. We’ve got to show that this won’t cost you money, and if done right, this should make you more money.”
Czapar said that the best practices have “overall been very well received,” and the Illinois Farm Bureau has been actively promoting the NLRS to its members.
“I think everyone’s in agreement that we can do a better job,” Czapar said.