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hardnox
Advisor

Des Moines waterworks case

http://www.dmww.com/water-quality/water-quality-data/

 

Looks like all the DM sites are currently under the 10 mg/l standard although two by not very much. In an abundance of caution, if it were me I'd not have a pregnant wife or infant drinking that.

 

Seems to be a beyond hot button issue. I agree with the agribusiness interests who say there are better ways to deal with it than this lawsuit although I don't see them dealing with it. Actually "they" seem to be dealing with it with $1M of anonymous contributions to the legal defense of the case.

 

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2016/04/09/secret-donors-pay-934k-defend-wa...

 

The legal wrangling will play out however it does but I'd suggest that we really need a proactive approach in terms of how we farm.

 

http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/02/02/382475870/heres-how-to-end-iowas-great-nitrate-fight

 

Whether the first wave of biotechnology has been a net plus is arguable (that's not a criticism of people who choose to use biotech traited seeds or sells them) with resistances and the high cost (basically halfway buying the extra bushel from the patent holder).

 

Public universties have pretty well left the basic crop breeding development business but I contine to say that there would be enormous public good in using biotechnology to create cover crop varieties that are adaptable to the central and northern cornbelt. I have no idea where to start but if they can put a firefly gene in tobacco to make it glow in the dark or make a frotproof tomato I'm thinking there are possibilities.

 

That's going to reqire public investment because the profit potential appears small compared to commodity crops. A leguminous one would be nice (not sure how that works with the N angle but not sure it doesn't either, legumes use soil N until they fully nodulate). biggest thing would be just something that is extremely fast to establish and grows rapidly in colder temps. Ideally it would be easy to kill with a couple of different classes of chemistry.

 

As to how to encourage and incentivize practices, money, I guess. And there would be substantial other benefits to soil erosion, organic matter, N recycling (and carbon sequestration).

 

BTW, some people around here getting better and better with annual ryegrass but it still remains a bit of a hit or miss deal.

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7 Replies
BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Des Moines waterworks case

Well, the guy that`s behind the lawsuit is one of those educated way beyond his intelligence and has way too much time on his hands.  Farmers aren`t to blame for this, nitrogen is spoon fed more than ever, reduced tillage more than ever, more filter strips than ever.  Des Moines and some of these communities shouldn`t be drawing drinking water from a river...how about digging a well like the rest of us do???

 

But these cover crops can be expensive, $30-$40 having to be flown on and this far north it`s a hit and miss deal, if it`s a dry September it won`t get established.  If the government is going to require this stuff, they`d better pick up the whole tab and I don`t want to hear any cries of "socialism" from the peanut gallery!

 

But it`s like the "honey do" list that your wife gives you, if you do everything, she`ll just give you another list.  And with this water deal, since the basic premise that "farmers are at fault" is false the more we do the problem will still be there.  You could put every acre north of Des Moines in grass and CRP and send the farmers to Miami and still Des Moines would have nitrates in their water.

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hardnox
Advisor

Re: Des Moines waterworks case

Well, it the zombie apocalypse came and depopulated the area, N discharge would decline as permanent vegetation took over. It would decline a lot over time as the artificial drainage system degraded.

 

But until that time the watershed contains a high concentration of some of the country's primest farmland and it makes sense to encourage a high percentage of it to be farmed intensively- the exception mostly being universal filter strips.

 

It probably even makes sense to have a high concentration of livestock there where the nutrient can be efficiency recycled although I have  a small problem with using Family Farmers as the face of the corporate megafarms where they work as janitors.

 

But anyway, what I'm saying is that this is a place where biotechnology could actually serve the public good, including farmers'.

 

As far as paying for it, sure. I'd say take that if the technology was developed it would make sense to fund it publicly, (and probably pay for it by eliminating the crop insurance subsidy and countercyclical payments, lol).

 

 

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BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Des Moines waterworks case

I`m sorry Nox, but you are mistaken, vegetation breaks down into nitrogen and that is a part of what gets into the river   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_cycle#/media/File:Nitrogen_Cycle.svg   

 

The drainage tile actually "dries the soil sponge" out so that it can keep the nutrients in place...you know, if you have a wet sponge and pour water on it, it runs off.  Well, if the sponge was dry and you pour water on it, it absorbs the extra water and drainage tile keeps the soil able to handle excessive rains and keep nutrients in place.

 

Why do they all of a sudden have this bug in their butt?  For the past +40 years there`s been intentive farming north of Des Moines, if farming was the culprit actually nitrates should be going down, because of the filter strips along ditches and reduced tillage and reduced nitrogen applications.   I wouldn`t be surprised if Des Moines actually had more nitrates back in 1851 in their water than they do now, afterall it`s the "Raccoon River" we`re talking about here.

 

If and I say "If" the plaintiffs in this lawsuit have a case against the farmers, well then there you have one of the hidden costs of the US cheap food policy.

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hardnox
Advisor

Re: Des Moines waterworks case

OM locks up nitrogen,as does growing vegetation.

 

If you're going to introduce artifical nitrogen into the system you need more of the above to offset it.

 

Artificial drainage systems are the largest culprit but they're a necessary component of civilization. So we deal with what we can.

 

I know that your paloeconservative belief system necessitates an utter lack of imagination when it might entail a bit of change on your part but some farmers are actually interested in improving their land, rather than degrading it, and creating as few externalities as are practically possible.

 

That isn't 0, and the battle against land degradation isn't ever fully won.

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BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Des Moines waterworks case

Well, the artifical nitrogen goes on a nitrogen hungry crop like corn and ideally gets used up, a soil test before harvest would show very little nitrogen left.  I am not in favor of fall applied nitrogen, because ideally you only apply in the spring and summer, that way you`re spoon feeding the corn crop with little as possible waste.  I still say that the drainage tile keeps the soil in shape to hold on to the nutrients.  In the case of nitrogen, a big rain leeches it, so if you start out with a field that isn`t already saturated, much less N will be lost.

 

Moving away from fall applied N and replacing tile intakes with a small grass filter strip so it isn`t a direct point source of contamination might be a workable compromise north of Des Moines.

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hardnox
Advisor

Re: Des Moines waterworks case

Buffers don't reduce N load as much as P and herbicide residues but, yes, most certainly worth strongly incentivizing. It would help a little with N too.

 

As far as reducing heavy fall or spring pre-plant applications, farmers tend to bridle against regulations. And in fairness when you're farming thousands of acres that's a big chunk of exposure to have hanging out there. I haven't seen anyone put forward any practical suggestions on how to do that that are going to both be effective and not have farmers screaming bloody murder.

 

FWIW I regard sidedressing as one of the most simple profitable practices. It's never worse than pre-plant and sometimes significantly better assuming you heat up ths starter with some N. Over time it pays. And while you can still get socked in by weather, tech can probably double capacity to get it on in a timely fashion- if I tried to self steer for 16 hours I'd probably be hyperventilating from all the patches I was taking out.

 

But I'm also guessing that one of the reasons why N is a particular problem in that watershed is the high organic content of soils that are heavily tiled. Regardless of how much supplemental N there is there's probably more natural release than on our soils here. That's where covers come in.

 

I guess the heavy drainage well districts on Iowa are to the north and east of there? At least those folks have the decency to put their N into their own water.

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BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Des Moines waterworks case

There were alot of "drainage wells" down in Don`s neck of the woods...alot of Democrats there too  :), never understood the idea of draining your field tile into your drinking water even if you were farming with mules at the time, but I suppose they were too tight to dig a ditch.   Anyway, they are closing them, I don`t know if there`s many left anymore.

 

But you can have the best nutrient management plan in the world that`s certified by the Sierra Club and Izaak Walton League and still if you get these more and more common 7" + rain events with flooding...all bets are off, there is going to be runooff that ends up in the river.  It`s all about timing of when a culvert is sampled, you could sample 364 days a year and it would be acceptable amounts of nitrogen leaving the field, but if on the one day you sample after N was applied there was a 5" hard rain event, you`d feel like locking the farmer up.

City people with their "greenest lawn in the neighborhood" contests also have a hand in this too, on a 1/2 acre they can buy bags and bags of fertilizer at Menards and more at Home Depot and still more at Loews maybe put on #400 on thier little 1/2 acre just to grow grass and win a contest.

 

The government can have the "stick approach" and tax and fine or the carrot approach and maybe offer a farmer $25/acre to apply N after a certain date in the spring.  I don`t know how much good it will do, because as I said, it matters the time when you have your sample bottle at the end of the culvert.    I`m not a fan of anhydrous especially in the fall, but logistics-wise it has to be done, or all forms of N would really go up in the spring and application would be challenging.  The soil is basically used as a nitrogen "storehouse" over the winter to take the load off in the spring.  if that changes, someone is going to have to be willing to open up their pocketbook.

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