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Research Highlights

Research Highlights
Edge-of-Field Water Monitoring Program Could Improve Farm Productivity and Water Quality

A monitoring station installed at the edge of a soybean field captures surface runoff. The runoff will be analyzed for amounts of sediment and nutrients leaving the field. It is one of the stations on the five Kentucky farms involved in the national water monitoring project. Photo: Steve Patton, UK Ag Communications

By Carol Brown

Clean water is vital for everyone and trying to keep surface water as clean as possible is a daunting task. Farmers and others who work the land know all too well how their actions can affect water quality.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) continually works with farmers across the country in the pursuit of improved water quality and finding ways to reduce plant nutrients and soil entering our nation’s waterways. The NRCS national Edge-of-Field Monitoring program, begun in 2013 and conducted in impaired watersheds across the country, measures best management practices to reduce surface water runoff from agricultural lands.

Brad Lee, a water quality Extension professor at the University of Kentucky, is part of the team working on the state’s Edge-of-Field Monitoring program, which they have named Blue Water Farms. For the last five years, the program has been supported by the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board.

“The Edge-of-Field Monitoring program is connected with EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), where the NRCS has set aside money for farmers to help evaluate best management practices that keep nutrients and sediment on the land,” says Lee. “We have five farmers participating in the edge-of-field water monitoring program in our state.”

Lee and his research team have installed water monitoring stations on each of these farms to measure sediment, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the surface water runoff. The team analyzes the amount of nutrients coming off the land after every runoff event that occurs and reports their findings to the NRCS.

The program is voluntary, and farmers decide what management practice to focus on, but they must meet the criteria for participation including field size, what crops are grown and the specific BMP they want to try. Lee says the participating farmers are looking at cover crops, grassed waterways, and a poultry litter application comparison.

The farmers receive money from EQIP to help defray some of the additional costs associated with monitoring program, but it doesn’t cover all the costs. Funding from the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board and the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board help to bridge the gap. Hydrogeologist Glynn Beck with the Kentucky Geological Survey and the University of Kentucky round out the partnership of organizations helping to manage the project and assess the data.

“We’ve just wrapped up our third year of monitoring for the 10-year project,” says Lee. “It took the first two years to identify participating growers, receive approval, and install the equipment before we initiated the monitoring.”

This monitoring program will shed light on how farmers can make more economically sound decisions in their farming practices.

“We want farmers to make knowledgeable management decisions and ensure they have the best information possible to make those decisions,” Lee stresses. “With this project, I’m focusing on the monetary investment that is lost when nutrients and sediment run off these farms. If we were to keep the nutrients on the land and soil in its place, clearly that would help producers and it could lead to more conservation activities on the ground.”

The long-term results from this project will help farmers reduce soil erosion as well as save input costs to improve their productibility and profitability.

Visit the NRCS website for more information about the Edge-of-Field Monitoring program and the EQIP program, or visit your local NRCS office.

This project was funded by the soybean checkoff. To find research related to this research highlight or to see other checkoff research projects, please visit the National Soybean Checkoff Research Database.