Studies Focus On Water Quality Improvement

Little data is available now, but long-term studies are underway to find an answer to the question: 'Does no-till really help the water?'

Published on: Apr 19, 2013

What decision-makers would like to have are fact sheets that show in black and white how much farm soil can be saved, how many nutrients can be saved and how much better water quality will be if farmers in a watershed all use a conservation cropping system.

One of the most popular systems amongst those interested in conservation farming today is the no-till and cover crop combination systems.

Lawmakers say it would make their job easier when working on things like the farm bill debate if they had numbers to show their fellow politicians who have no knowledge of agriculture. Unfortunately, such data is hard to come by, at least right now. On-farm projects are underway that should generate that data, and so far, it appears that they will document the benefit of these systems.

Better system: Researchers are observing positive changes that help water quality on farms that are using no-till and cover crop systems.
Better system: Researchers are observing positive changes that help water quality on farms that are using no-till and cover crop systems.

One of those projects is in the Eagle Creek Watershed in southern Hendricks and northern Marion County. Two farmers cooperating with a long-term study project there are neighbors Jack Maloney and Mike Starkey. Both are fully committed to no-till and cover crop systems, and made the switch years ago, even though they farm a lot of land that is poorly drained or somewhat poorly drained without tile lines.

Bob Barr, a professor at the Indiana University/Purdue University - Indianapolis, is in his seventh year of collecting data on their farms. He's involved as part of the Eagle Creek Watershed project, headed up by Harold Thompson, a long-time conservation specialist.

Barr notes that it's already clear this far into the project that changes are occurring. There is less runoff and fewer nutrients leaving fields farmed by those who use these systems. That benefits water quality in Eagle Creek.

"What we're doing now is documenting their success," he says. The goal is to have 10-year data before issuing a report. Once he has that data, Barr is confident he will have the type of proof lawmakers want to see when making policy and decisions that involve conservation.