At first glance, there might not seem to be much of a connection between the quality, quantity and cost of your drinking water and what farmers are growing in their fields.
Numerous research studies over the past couple of decades, however, show that the connection is real. Both farming practices and choice of crops make a big difference in how much topsoil winds up in rivers and reservoirs, causing sedimentation and loss of storage capacity. The nutrients carried into the water by that topsoil also cause harmful algal blooms that contaminate the water. Cities spend millions of dollars treating the water to make it safe to drink, which means residents buying that water pay more.
Those studies show that no-till farming practices slow down water and wind erosion and that a diverse mix of cover crops growing between cash crops increases the health of the soil and its ability to integrate and hold water. Adding livestock to the mix to graze those cover crops also adds natural fertilizer and prevents weeds from growing while providing cost savings on winter cattle feed or an opportunity to profit from a grazing lease with a neighbor.
That’s why the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has been instrumental in helping a northeast Kansas nonprofit called Glacial Hills Resource Conservation and Development get the funds to purchase eight new machines called “interseeders” that they have leased to farmer-owned cooperatives who can then custom-plant cover crops into standing corn, soybeans or grain sorghum.
One of the machines is being used as a demonstration machine, and six will be used in northeast Kansas, where municipalities depend heavily on reservoirs for drinking water. But one has come to Central Prairie Coop, which has headquarters in Sterling and serves farmers in the Cheney and Little Arkansas River watersheds, the source of Wichita’s drinking water.
On Aug. 27, that machine was operating in a Rice County field of 8-foot-tall, irrigated corn near Alden, planting a cover crop of rye between the rows of corn. By the time the corn is harvested, the farmer, Todd Oden, says the rye will be tall enough to provide food for cattle.
Co-op manager Brent Werth said the co-op has a three-year lease on the machine and an option to purchase it at the end of the lease.
Oden, who adopted no-till years ago, said this is first year to add cover crops and grazing to his farming practices, making him part of a growing movement that has been dubbed “regenerative agriculture.” That movement emphasizes soil health and farming practices that capture carbon and store it in the soil while improving water quality and reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides.
“By planting the cover crop now, I hope to have cattle grazing on the green rye and corn stalks immediately after harvest,” Oden said. “I have the advantage of having neighbors who are looking for grazing, so I can generate income from renting the land for grazing as well as grazing my own cattle.”
Howard Miller, outreach coordinator for the Cheney Watershed conservation group, said many farmers choose a combination of rye and grazing wheat seed for fall cover crops. Brassicas such as radishes and turnips are sometimes added because cattle like them and they promote soil health.
“The rye and rye and wheat combo give you the most bang for the buck for producing beef,” he said. “The brassicas break up soil compaction and the long roots help create the pathways for water infiltration and retention.”
The Cheney Watershed
The Cheney Watershed group was formed more than two decades ago when a group of farmers, many of whom had lost their farms when the reservoir was built, grew alarmed about the rate of silting in that was occurring and began working with conservationists to adopt farming practices that would reduce sedimentation.
The city of Wichita also became involved with the project, providing funds to help those farmers be able to afford to continue adding conservation practices.
The Cheney project is now recognized as one of the most successful lake conservation projects in the country, with the Army Corps of Engineers giving Cheney Reservoir a lifespan of at least 200 years.
Miller said he hopes to see more farmers adopt regenerative ag practices, especially among the 24 who were chosen last spring to participate in a General Mills-sponsored pilot project to expand regenerative ag and quantify the benefits. He said he thinks having the interseeder available will make it easier for farmers to benefit from cover crops.
Steven Rosenzweig, a soil scientist with General Mills, is one of the architects of the pilot program and is leading the research side of the effort. He said one of the goals of the project will be the collection of data to document the benefits of regenerative agriculture, which includes practices such as no-till, integration of cover crops, increasing plant diversity, keeping living roots in the soil year round and adding livestock to provide natural fertilizer and keep weeds from growing.
He said one benefit of collecting data will be the documentation that shows those practices enable the soil to sequester more carbon from the atmosphere. That quantification, in turn, will allow for farmers to be paid for sequestering carbon, improving water quality and reducing water use. General Mills has a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 28% across its full value chain by 2025, Rosenzweig said.
Andrew Lyon with KDHE’s Watershed Management division said that research has shown that keeping living roots in the soil at all times has proven to improve both the health of the soil and the quality of water.
“It just makes sense that cleaner water entering a stream, a reservoir or a river means less expense to a municipality treating that water for human consumption,” he said. “Traditional conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program have meant taking land out of production. The good thing about regenerative agriculture is that the land is still in production. The farmer gets the benefit of higher yields and healthier crops that come from healthier soils. Cover crops provide the opportunity to save money on winter livestock feed or earn revenue from leasing it to neighbors to graze cattle.”
He said achieving benefits for the entire watershed means getting a lot of acres in cover crops, and the interseeder is a valuable tool in keep expansion going.