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Chippewa Watershed aims to increase continuous living cover

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 12/09/2013 1:42 PM

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MINNEAPOLIS — Even with implementation of best management practices, nitrogen levels continued to creep upward in the Chippewa River Watershed.

By analyzing their wealth of data, the idea for the Chippewa 10 Percent Project was born.

Data collection is one of their strong points, said Kylene Olson, of the Chippewa River Watershed Project and co-director of the Chippewa 10 Percent Project. Olson spoke Nov. 21 at the Green Lands, Blue Waters conference.

Another one of their strong points is getting best management practices in place, Olson said. Between 2001 and 2011, 453 projects were completed for 742 benefitting landowners. For every $1 contributed by a landowner, the CRWP contributed $1.80, and for every $1 CRWP leveraged $6.70 in matching funds.

A third strength is partnerships. All strengths will be needed to make the 10 percent project a success, she said.

The Chippewa River Watershed is the most monitored watershed in the United States, Olson said. The watershed has seven automated sites that are sampled at least weekly, 250 longitudinal transect sample sites and 62 bank erosion survey sites.

The watershed project was established in 1998 under the umbrella of the Prairie Country Resource Conservation and Development program. When the federal government cut RC&D funding, the Chippewa River Watershed Project became a joint powers entity. The joint powers entity formed in December 2012 with a goal of improving water quality and water quantity issues in the western Minnesota watershed. It is a completely grant-based organization.

The Chippewa River Watershed is the largest tributary watershed in the Minnesota River Basin at 2,080 square miles, or 1.3 million acres. There are more than 2,672 miles of ditches, streams and rivers in the watershed. The primary agricultural crops are corn, soybeans and sugar beets. Livestock species include cattle, sheep, hogs and turkeys. The turkeys are confined, and the rest are raised in both confinement and pasture situations.

About 25 percent of the Chippewa River Watershed is covered in perennial grass, Olson said. In subwatersheds, where 35 percent of the landscape is covered in continuous living cover, water quality goals were achieved, she said. Thus, the idea for the Chippewa 10 Percent Project was born. The idea is to increase the amount of acreage in continuous living cover, wetlands, open water and forests by 10 percent throughout the watershed.

The project started three years ago.

Challenges

Meeting the 10 percent goal will not be without challenges, said Robin Moore, a Land Stewardship Project staff organizer and an organizer for the Chippewa 10 Percent Project.

The challenges include:

• The culture of agriculture. There's a belief that good farmers have black fields in the fall.

• The belief that cover crops don't pay.

• A lack of community acceptance.

• Livestock is needed to have a need for continuous cover, and in some areas, there is a scarcity of large animal veterinarians.

• A lack of systems and infrastructure for cover crops. Where does a farmer find a seed drill?

• It's hard to do something with long-term, not necessarily short-term benefits.

• The bottomline focus of agribusiness.

Moore said the best way to increase continuous living cover on the landscape is to meet individually with farmers. There must be trusting relationships for projects to proceed.

There have been hopeful signs, she said. She started with four people last year who were interested in cover crops, and that number has increased to 12 people this year. Township boards also are starting to talk about cover crops.

Extension educator Jim Paulson looks for ways farmers can add value to cover crops. One of the ways is through grazing livestock. Cover crops can provide low-cost forage, he said. One family told him they saved $2 per head per day grazing their cattle on cover crops instead of feeding hay.

Cover crops can be used to fill in gaps in the typical grazing season, be it later in the fall or early in the spring, Paulson said.

Ryegrass, for example, provides high quality forage. Some crop farmers don't like it, saying it's harder to kill.

Other challenges for planting cover crops include when and how to plant. Paulson showed a rig to plant cover crops that a farmer built himself. The rig allows the farmer to plant a cover crop in standing corn. It can sow up to a nine seed mixtures.

When grazing, Paulson encouraged care be taken not to graze too low.

"We built our prairies on roots," he said. Graze half and leave half to regrow.

Terry VanDerPol, who works with the 10 percent project, thinks the 10 percent goal is achievable for several reasons. Renewed interest is seen in soil health, and the link between stewardship and profit resonates with people, she said.

With falling commodity prices, VanDerPol sees cover crops as a way to add value to livestock and a way to reduce input costs for crop producers.

She has seen increasing use of cover crops in the three years since the project launched.