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“A highly functional soil will reduce the negative impacts of our agricultural practices…Runoff and soil erosion are major contributors to degrading water quality…and as we discuss soil health, we are simply promoting the practices that by default will address both of those right off the bat…” – Bill Stangel, independent agriculture consultant, Madison, Wis.

Healthy soils are key to productive and profitable farm operations as they can increase nutrient availability, improve water infiltration, reduce soil erosion and much more. But they can also lessen the negative affects some farming practices have on the environment.

For this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, we chat with independent agriculture consultant Bill Stangel of Madison, Wis., who joins us to discuss some of the ways farmers can minimize environmental impacts by focusing on developing healthy soils.

Listen in to hear about how different cropping systems are able to store carbon below ground, how soil type affects nutrient and water management plans, lessons learned from installing on-farm phosphorus reduction systems, the challenges of dialing in nitrogen use efficiency, why matching the crop to the soil matters and much more.

 
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The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by Montag Manufacturing.

Montag precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag’s family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer, visit www.Montagmfg.com or call Montag at (712) 517-2775.

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Full Transcript

Julia Gerlach:

Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies podcast. I'm Julia Gerlach, executive editor. Montag Precision Meter and Equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients, along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag Manufacturing website.

Julia Gerlach:

Healthy soils are key to productive and profitable farm operations, as they can increase nutrient availability, improve water infiltration, reduce soil erosion, and much more, but they can also lessen the negative effects some farming practices have on the environment. For this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies podcast, we chat with independent AG consultant, Bill Stangel of Madison, Wisconsin, who joins us to discuss some of the ways farmers can minimize environmental impacts by focusing on developing healthy soils.

Julia Gerlach:

Today, I'm here with Bill Stangel. Bill, you're the owner of Soil Solutions Consulting in Wisconsin. Would you just share a little bit about your background, how long you've been doing this and what got you into it, and why are you focusing on the consulting side?

Bill Stangel:

Okay. I've been operating as an independent crop consultant since either 1985 or 86. I've got into it right out of college, a way that I would not recommend anyone to do it. I thought, Hey, I'm going to hang up my shingle. This is the first job I had out of college.

Julia Gerlach:

Well, and you have a soil science degree?

Bill Stangel:

That's right.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

Yeah. I've got my bachelor's degree in soil science from UW Madison. Then I went on and went into graduate school for a period of time. I don't have much to show for it, but I dug in deep on soil fertility, in that realm then hit the ground running and decided to go into the world of consulting. Here I am today, still doing it.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah. What was your first action when you decided to hang that shingle?

Bill Stangel:

Well, actually I was in Illinois at the time and it was west of Springfield and north of St. Louis, down in the hill country between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. It was a very different environment and I just happened to have some projects that were looking for someone to do a little bit of work I hooked up with Farm Bureau, in that case. At that time, there were all these small labs all over the state in Illinois and this county farm bureau operated a very small lab.

Julia Gerlach:

A soil testing lab?

Bill Stangel:

Yes.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

I provided them some technical guidance on operations. Then we started up a soil testing and sampling program that we offered to farmers in the community. That's how I got going and just started doing soil fertility work there. Not long after that, I moved up into Wisconsin and hooked up with another crop consultant. He was a fantastic mentor. He's helped a lot of people over the years. I'll put in a plug for his name, it's Dave Cole. He's retired. He's helped a lot of people in Wisconsin get going in the world of crop consulting.

Bill Stangel:

From there, I just expanded the business and operated out of Lake Mills for many years. Now, I operate out Madison and focus on working with farmers in the counties of South Central Wisconsin. Wisconsin is a great place and the diversity of Wisconsin agriculture is something that has always intrigued me and I find it to be challenging, as well as interesting.

Bill Stangel:

We do have that intermix of livestock and cash grain operations, which is a unique dynamic in the Midwest. In Illinois, it's, you're one or the other, at least where I was. I grew up in that system. I grew up on a dairy farm up in Kiwan county and I knew how that system functioned and dysfunctioned and thought, hey, I can help people in refining their management and come up with solutions to places that they recognize they need help in. I was willing to help them.

Julia Gerlach:

Did you actually grow up on a farm?

Bill Stangel:

Yeah.

Julia Gerlach:

You did?

Bill Stangel:

I did.

Julia Gerlach:

A dairy farm?

Bill Stangel:

Yep.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, but you didn't want to be a dairy farmer?

Bill Stangel:

Well, actually I did.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, okay.

Bill Stangel:

I did. I grew up in a family of eight other siblings and have an older brother who was in partnership with my dad. When I got out of school, that was the midst of the farm depression of the eighties.

Julia Gerlach:

Sure.

Bill Stangel:

It was a tough time to keep the farm afloat, much less take on another partner, and the opportunity just wasn't there for it at the right time then. If I had to make a second choice, this would be it.

Julia Gerlach:

Well, I have certainly heard good things about you from the farmers in the area, so I know your work is very much appreciated.

Bill Stangel:

Well, that's good to know.

Julia Gerlach:

One of the things I wanted to talk to you about today is water quality. We were on a Zoom call together a few weeks ago and the topic was actually soil carbon, but I think you were saying, and correct me if I get this wrong, but I think you were saying that soil carbon is really difficult to measure, but water quality is well understood and also a very good indicator of the soil health factors that so many farmers are concerned about.

Bill Stangel:

Yeah. The past winter, this has been the winter of carbon. In farm circles, there's been so much coverage and discussion about what's happening with Indigo. What's happening with Nori? What's happening with the ecosystem's consortium?

Bill Stangel:

My conclusion is there's not much happening. We've got a series of demonstrations of carbon marketing programs that are scattered across the landscape today and they are nothing more than demonstrations, for the most part. We don't have a true carbon market that farmers can really go in and say, "Hey, I'm going to sign up and I understand this system and I know what the deliverables are and what I have to do". I haven't seen that yet. I've seen a lot of proposals, but I haven't seen anything that I would hook my wagon to.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

Part of the challenge with developing that system is where we are in the science. We have a pretty good handle on how to quantify carbon in a soil profile. What we don't have a very good handle on is predicting across multiple environments how we take carbon from the atmosphere and stick it into the root zone.

Bill Stangel:

We know the principles of it. We just have a hard time predicting where it's going to work and where it hasn't worked as predicted. We're on the early side of the science. There's a long-term study at Arlington that was published the middle of the last decade that had accumulated approximately 20 years of cropping systems data and the long and short was, hey, we aren't sequestering much carbon with the practices of this trial, other than we've got a couple that are maintaining to say, we're socking it away. The data was pretty scant there.

Julia Gerlach:

That was over a 20-year period, you said?

Bill Stangel:

Yeah.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah.

Bill Stangel:

Yeah.

Julia Gerlach:

What were the practices that were measured?

Bill Stangel:

It was a systems trial and it had three cash grain systems. One was a continuous corn, another was a corn soybean rotation with no-till. Then the third cash grain was a corn soybean wheat in an organic simulated structure. None of those were storing carbon.

Bill Stangel:

Then there were three forage-based systems that were also part of that trial. This was a great trial, by the way, a lot of good data there. A lot of good people have worked on it over the decades. The forage-based systems, one was called the Green Gold Program, which was alfalfa, corn rotation, looking at intense alfalfa management. You seed it, direct seeding, two years of alfalfa forage in the established years. Then one year of corn. We have manure in that system. It's a very robust, highly productive system.

Bill Stangel:

The next forage system was, again, an organic based system, just a three-year rotation, oats and alfalfa seeded as forage, grown another year after that as forage and then one year of corn. That also had manure in the system.

Bill Stangel:

The third forage based system, a rotational grazing system that had actual animals on site and they're moving through all these small paddocks rotated around. That was the only system that actually had a slight increase in soil carbon in the top meter of profile. Out of all of those, all six system, that was the only one that actually had a slight increase. Statistically, it wasn't different than no increase, but numerically, there was a slight bump. That was done on a Prairie soil Plano series MonoSol, which is rich in carbon to start with and we really couldn't measure much of change in that.

Bill Stangel:

Jump down into Iowa, I know of two trials that have contradictory results to that on long term studies. The data's out there. It's mixed, is the best you can say right now.

Julia Gerlach:

Just to dig into this a little bit, obviously, we do have a couple of farmers out there who have been paid for some carbon credits. I think they've both gone through the Nori system and I'm assuming since these credits have been sold, that somebody is saying that there is carbon being sequestered. I'm just wondering, what do you think is the basis for that?

Bill Stangel:

Well, I think I know specifically within the Nori system, they're using the comet model.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah.

Bill Stangel:

Which was developed out at Colorado State. My understanding, it's not only the carbon sequestration that's happening in terms of putting it in the soil. It's a combination of practices as well. Looking at the whole system and saying, okay, if we've reduced tillage and reduced fuel use, there's a carbon credit that we can pull into this equation.

Bill Stangel:

That's part of it, but there is, I know of one farm out east, I believe it was in Maryland. It was the first one that Nori had sold.

Julia Gerlach:

Trey Hill, right?

Bill Stangel:

Yeah. You know they had numerous years of practices. They could reach back and take past credits for what they'd been doing. They're also in the Chesapeake Bay region, which they have been very active, in terms of incorporating cover crops into their cropping systems.

Bill Stangel:

In general, when you look at the Eastern coastal plain soils, they're low organic matter to start with. The stage is set, okay. If you make practice changes, odds are pretty good in a low organic matter system like that, you're going to be able to measure it and quantify it quite well. It's not a one size fits all equation, that we're going to be able to take this out across the countryside.

Bill Stangel:

I look at Wisconsin and the farm that we're sitting on right now. What we do in terms of quantification of our soil carbon measurements up on this drumlin, this hill right behind us, versus the bottom of that drumlin, where we have a very high, organic matter soil to start with, I see us struggling with the differences in our output when we make those measurements just on the same farm, just a little bit that I know about soil science and soil morphology. The changes we have between texture, parent material and development of that soil over the last 10,000 years of whatever it's been here, there are very different processes at work and that's showing up in the carbon deposition within those soils.

Bill Stangel:

I don't have a good idea on how we're going to account for that variability. We can model it. The next question becomes how good is the model at that? Right now, we don't have the answer to that.

Bill Stangel:

That's where the soil science community is actively working right now. We might have the cart before the horse here a little bit.

Julia Gerlach:

With the carbon markets?

Bill Stangel:

Yeah.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah.

Bill Stangel:

We've had a few players in the marketplace right now who have had difficulty delivering on their promises, a bit of a let's go out and make something happen attitude rather than let's have a system in place that can really address the questions that people have.

Bill Stangel:

That has created degree of skepticism within the farm community, really hook their wagon to anybody, at this point. I think there are some very good players out there right now. I think the Ecosystems Services Consortium, what I see, I see them being effective in that they're saying, "Hey, there's more to it than carbon. Let's talk about water quality. Let's talk about what other environmental benefits can we bring to the table, so that able to package this stuff together". That's one approach. Then you've got the strict carbon approach and it's real. It's something that I support in terms of, hey, we've got an increased level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The numbers don't lie, well over 400 parts per million, which is a lot different from when I was a freshman in college.

Bill Stangel:

The next question becomes, how do you reduce that number? It's by reducing emissions and sequestration. If there's a third way, I'm all ears, but those are the only two I'm aware of today.

Bill Stangel:

How we get there, I don't know. The frustration that I see is there's somewhat of a disconnect in terms of what those carbon credits are worth to the end buyer versus what's being paid at the farm level. Because we're in the early state ages of that, there's a lot of stuff being consumed in the middle. How much of that is profiteering and how much of it is actual development work? That varies by company.

Bill Stangel:

I know there's one company out there that is known to have some of the highest paid executives in the carbon market business today. That doesn't bode well for what's happening with the slice out of the middle.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah. That's, that's very interesting. When we bring that back to the water quality issue, is water quality a leading indicator of soil health?

Bill Stangel:

It can be. Every farmer who has operated in the last couple hundred years, understands the value of organic matter and intrinsic connection between soil organic matter and soil quality, which right off the bat, will infer and imply soil health and crop productivity. That's just a given, so it's easy to make the connection.

Bill Stangel:

Now, when we jump to water quality, there are numerous factors that we can directly measure their impacts on water quality, but when we look at water quality itself, a highly functional soil will reduce the negative impacts we have with our agricultural practices.

Bill Stangel:

If we take a step back and say, does agriculture impact water quality? The answer is yes. The question is, to what degree? Our challenge is, how can we minimize our impacts? Simple as that and we do agree run-off and soil erosion are major contributors to degrading water quality.

Bill Stangel:

The first step is to address those upfront. As we use the discussion of soil health, we are simply promoting the practices that by default, will address both of those right off the bat. I think the discussions we're having today in soil health are a logical extension of where we've been with the reduced tillage and no tillage campaigns that we've had all through my career.

Bill Stangel:

I'm surprised and pleased with the effectiveness that cover crops has had in facilitating experimentation and transition for so many farmers out there today. As you've encountered and I've encountered people up and down the road who say, "Hey, I'm no-tilling now. I used to be a full blown, rip it up and dig it up guy, and like big tractors and I like to make them work. It's fun". I like it too, but a lot of those guys did have experience with no-till or something similar to it through their careers, but something made them go back.

Bill Stangel:

I think what we've uncorked here with cover crops and the soil health discussion, the focus has changed and we've got a tool that actually works really well for that transition. I've promoted no-till since the first day I started doing consulting and we have to prepare people to slug it out for a few years till we got over the hump.

Bill Stangel:

Well, what I'm seeing with cover crops in this equation, we're not slugging it out anymore. We're getting over the hump much more rapidly and that transition and the improved equipment that we have out there, people are able to make systems work, where we struggled over the decades to make it work fast enough for people to hang on and keep going at it.

Julia Gerlach:

Do you think it's the biology that the cover crops are bringing that's making that transition so much easier?

Bill Stangel:

Yeah, I think that's it in a nutshell. What we have happening in that root zone and the ability to maintain and improve soil structure and function is very evident. You've been in the field and seen people pull up the roots and do all that. It's real. It's tangible and people get it once you start digging around.

Bill Stangel:

That opens the door for us to capture some of the services in terms of reducing nutrient loss, when we're dealing with our practices of fertilization and nutrient utilization.

Julia Gerlach:

Speaking of that, what are your thoughts on nutrient use when you're working in a no-till and cover crop situation? Is there an opportunity for people to reduce the amount of nutrients they use when they're in the system or is that just not as much of an issue?

Bill Stangel:

There are situations where with cover crops, we can reduce nutrient use. Specifically, if we're bringing legumes into a system, as a nitrogen fixer, are actually able to accumulate enough biomass that we can say, hey, I've got two tons of biomass and it's 20% protein, I can figure out how many pounds of nitrogen is sitting there. Depending on what the carbon nitrogen ratio is, I can tell you whether or not it's going to be available to that next season's crop. That's pretty cut and dry.

Bill Stangel:

As we go south, and you look at cover crops being utilized in the off season, the opportunity that presents to grow, have living covers from November, all winter, you might slow down a little bit in January and February, but it's probably green year round. It's a very different environment.

Bill Stangel:

We're up here. If we've got two feet of snow, it's not quite the same, but we're able to capitalize on the soil health aspect of it. The nutrient side of it, just with a Rye Cover Crop or something like that, the utility I see there is we're able to keep nitrogen in the root zone, or we're not losing as much of it to groundwater or tile drainage. Tangible nitrogen recovery, and retention function is very robust and that works this far north and much farther north.

Bill Stangel:

The other part of it is, what we do here is not trying to pursue the exact same EcoServices in Wisconsin, where we get 35 inches of rain a year. We don't have the same concerns that they do in the Prairie, Provinces, Southern Canada, or the Northern Great Plains. Their loss periods are quite different from what ours are. To apply the same principles in Fargo, North Dakota that we do in Jefferson, Wisconsin, some of them apply, but what we're trying to do for water quality, we're still concerned about nitrate. We're still concerned about phosphorus, but how they're delivered, they're very different delivery mechanisms throughout calendar year. A common theme that we both have is that spring, winter melt, that runoff period. After that, there's very little similar in terms of where those loss mechanisms are really driving water quality. We have to be cognizant of that.

Julia Gerlach:

If we get water quality issues under control, does the soil carbon piece come along with it?

Bill Stangel:

That's a good question. We like to think so, but I think in some environments it will and others, it may not. I say that based on the diversity we have in soil environments. What is a healthy soil? Part of that is dependent on what the use of that soil. Is a healthy soil for growing potatoes in the Central Sands, the same as a healthy soil, growing rhubarb in my backyard? What makes a healthy soil is a very subjective discussion, I would say. That's kind of getting down into the soil science geekiness.

Julia Gerlach:

We'll get back to the podcast in a moment, but I want to take time once again, to thank our sponsor, Montag Precision metering equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montag's family of seed platform, equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website and now back to the podcast.

Julia Gerlach:

Well, I was just watching a presentation by a soil scientist who was talking about how heterogeneous soil is, right? You can have a sample from two different fields and they're very different and you can have two samples from three feet apart, and they're very different and you can even have two different samples from the same, basically the same sample, and they're very different.

Bill Stangel:

Right.

Julia Gerlach:

That makes it all very challenging, it seems.

Bill Stangel:

Yeah. The way that I would twist that question would be our intent should be to utilize the soil to its best ability for the purpose that we've chosen to apply to it. Sometimes that will require nutrient additions and it may be in large quantities. A classic example of that would be not to pick on the Central Sands of Wisconsin, but without irrigation, it's a very low production environment. We add water, now what becomes limiting is basically management and nutrient retention because of how coarse the soils are.

Bill Stangel:

How I address the issue there, the corn phase of the rotation is different from what I do on a Plano in Dodge county. We might have the same resource concern with nitrates getting into groundwater. We use different tools for both of those environments. That's our challenge. We tend to want to have a simple, easy button in this equation and just tell me what I've got to do and I'll do it. The answer might not be the answer you want to hear in that case.

Bill Stangel:

Then our next question is how do we implement the practices that are required to protect that resource in that setting?

Julia Gerlach:

To just go back to those two different soil types, Plano and the Central Sands and how you would address the same goal, different ways. Can you just talk about that a little bit more?

Bill Stangel:

Okay. Right off the bat, it's important to understand what the lost mechanism is. In one case, we're dealing with a highly permeable soil, Plainfield series up in the Central Sands is, of course, textured soil, very low, organic matter. It can rain in the morning. It can be back in the field in the afternoon.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

That's how permeable it is. Our first course of management there, in terms of applying nitrogen, is to put a little bit on frequently. We can do that same method of nitrogen application on a Plano soil on the prairie soils in Dodge county, but economically, it's not going to fly. We're still managing nitrate loss to groundwater, but that loss process is we've got much more storage in this Plano soil. We can pay attention to what our soil contribution is to that nitrogen demand of the crop.

Bill Stangel:

That's our tough nut to crack in that system is predicting how much nitrogen is mineralizing out of the organic matter. That varies dramatically from year to year, where up in the Central Sands, it's less than 1% organic matter, where working on the Plano, it's 3-4% organic matter. That organic end contribution is very for in those systems. You basically ignore it up in the Sands and you pay attention to it down here. That's where our effort would differ dramatically.

Julia Gerlach:

What's the testing that you do to figure out how the nitrogen is mineralizing?

Bill Stangel:

That's the holy grail of nitrogen management.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

It's like, how do we be better predict soil nitrogen mineralization?

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah.

Bill Stangel:

It is a messy dynamic system. It varies year to year and it varies dramatically within the same field. That's our challenge. We have the dilemma of everyone recognizes nitrogen deficiency. There's a penalty there. There is no penalty to excess nitrogen to the corn crop. It'll take it up. It's happy and if it's not retained, it's vulnerable to loss.

Bill Stangel:

How I deal with it with my client base, is we just really focus on nitrogen use efficiency. We are messing around with, on a regular basis, various technologies that can detect nitrogen sufficiency on the go in the plant to say, hey, we know it's deficient here. Let's bump it up. That's had varying degrees of success. We can do soil tests, give us an indicator of soil's ability to contribute to the crop, but probably the easiest thing out there is to leave a zero nitrogen strip.

Bill Stangel:

Now, you can pretty much say, okay, we took up X pounds of nitrogen in this above ground corn crop and we didn't ply anything. Where did that come from? Duh. It came from mineralized down, from organic matter.

Bill Stangel:

Our challenge is that might be 50 pounds one year, and it might be 150 pounds the next and the soil fertility community understands that. Many in the farming community understand it. Very few can really wrap their heads around it to say, how can we manage this variability in a tighter manner? That's our challenge. That's where we've got to dial it in and figure it out.

Bill Stangel:

I had a conversation yesterday with a co-op agronomist and a client of mine. We were sitting down and the agronomist was telling me, well, we are talking about population varying populations across the field with corn, with the planter. His comment was, "Hey, what I think is more important is that we vary nitrogen across the field, especially if we're increasing populations". He used the analogy, if I've got three kids, I buy X amount of groceries. If I've got six kids, I've got to buy more groceries. That's where we are with corn fertilization. The mentality is if you've got more, you need more, but the science doesn't support that very well because of this variability that we have across any field environment with nitrogen mineralization. He took that to the next level and simply said, "Hey, we've got the higher population down on the good ground, we better bump nitrogen". The data I've got from my trials, doesn't support that.

Bill Stangel:

It's not unique to me. Soil, fertility, nitrogen study community out there has a lot of data that shows there's a very poor relationship between expected corn yield and rate of nitrogen applied. You get out on the extremes, yeah, there's really good correlation, but it's really noisy in the middle.

Bill Stangel:

We've got to keep tightening the screws on that one. Otherwise, we're not going to fix the problems we've got with nitrate losses.

Julia Gerlach:

Do you have a sense of where we're going to find an answer or not necessarily yet?

Bill Stangel:

I don't think there is one answer. What we are doing with soil health and improving soil function is helping us dive deeper into the biological communities that are impacting that root soil interface. We know there's a lot of action with bacteria and fungi that are happening right there.

Julia Gerlach:

Right.

Bill Stangel:

We've always known that. We've got the chemistry down pretty good. Where the frontier is right now is that little root hair space where bacteria and fungi are hanging out and big old commune of soil plant and microbes, it's pretty hop in place. We're late to the party. They've been doing it for a while and we've been standing on the side watching now we're diving in the science community a bit, figure it out.

Julia Gerlach:

One of the most interesting things I read, sometime in the last six months, it was, there's this common perception that the soil has everything in it for plants to grow, but that is not actually the case. The plants do a lot of work to basically feed the biology in the soil and create an environment, in which it can thrive. I had never thought of it that way before.

Bill Stangel:

Yeah. That's so true. Think of it, we've got a handful of crops that we're taking all over the world, grow here. Then the next step is okay, how do we make it grow? Oftentimes, the soil does not have what it takes to grow what we want to grow, so we add something. That's the nature of agriculture.

Bill Stangel:

Look at something as simple as cranberries. Cranberries evolved in a really, pretty nasty, tough environment. When you look at other plants, there aren't a lot of plants that can tolerate a pH of five or less. We pull it out. We pull cranberries, plunk it out in the middle of an alfalfa field where we have a pH of seven. They are not going to thrive, as simple as that.

Bill Stangel:

Beautiful soil, productive is all get out, cranberries are not going to like it. A soil can provide everything that a plant will need. You just better be talking, what plants are you talking about? It becomes important there. We, obviously, can grow plants all over the globe that plant and soil are paired and if we're going to mess with that pair, we'd better bring something else to the party.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah. I know that you work on some water quality projects with farmers in the area. I just was wondering if you would share some of the experience that you've had. What improvements have you seen?

Bill Stangel:

On the water quality side, a lot of the focus that we've been working with is dissolved reactive phosphorus, and trying to reduce what's moving off edge of field. It's a tough nut to crack because of the quantities that we're talking about in this case. They are agronomically insignificant. The amount of dissolved phosphorus that we're moving off on a per acre basis are in the pounds per acre range of less than five, in most cases.

Bill Stangel:

If you're losing 10 pounds of phosphorus in particulate and dissolved phosphorus, you're an outlier. You're on the high end. That's not a big portion of the landscape. Most of the time, we're dealing with less than five pounds per acre. By comparison, a corn crop is going to receive 60 to 75 pounds of P205, approximately 44% of that is actual phosphorus.

Bill Stangel:

Do the math, we're putting on 20 to 30 pounds of phosphorus, for the most part, actual P. If we're losing three pounds, it's 10% of it. We don't have the mechanisms to really tweak that from a fertility management standpoint. The rate per acre isn't going to have that big of an impact. It all boils down to what are we doing to reduce that runoff quantity? Then what are the mechanisms where we deliver it to a water body itself?

Bill Stangel:

That's where I've gotten involved with some of our phosphorous reduction systems. We've got a case with Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian on a farm up by Beaver Dam. We have a site where they did a tile system upgrade, and we got involved with Arizona State University and took a little information from another Wisconsin project, doing something similar to this, where we brought waste product, a byproduct of the iron industry out of Gary Indiana, iron blast furnace sleg. We brought it in, made a system where we basically go down to the tile level, run tile water through this sleg. It will remove phosphorus from the tile water.

Bill Stangel:

We've got this thing in the ground. We started installing it just over almost a year ago, now. We got our first whack at installation in, and we were having problems from the get go. Within days of installation, we could see, we had problems with the material that we were using wasn't graded properly. We just had too many fines in it. The whole thing was blocking up on us. We were impeding tile flow.

Bill Stangel:

We came back in and redid it last fall, got some different media and low and behold, ran water through it and we are reducing the phosphorus content in that tile water works. The problem is, we had to scale it down considerably because it was a proof of concept. The design team that we started out with on the whole project, didn't go outside their circle of expertise to tap into the known science out there, in terms of what to do and what not to do.

Bill Stangel:

We've got a proof of concept that's reducing phosphorus. The next step is, hey, how do we modify the system so that we can get more water through it? The other lesson that came out of it, we better make darn sure we're putting in it in the right place. If it's well positioned, treating water that is truly elevated and dissolved phosphorus, it does a bang up job. It can remove phosphorus quantities that are similar to what you might get out of a small sewage treatment plant in a small community. That is, oftentimes, discharging directly into a water body, so it's a real reduction, quantifiable pounds that are not going into a water body, but if you don't have elevated phosphorus levels, you're spending money on something that's not really retaining a lot of phosphorus. You got to pick your location. That's our next phase.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

Let's really define where we are right now. We put in multiple sampling points on this tile system now. Our next step is to sample those. We do know the variability of phosphorus across this farm and where that intersection is with high testing, soil and tile lines running through it. Do we need to redirect these lines through the system? That's our next step.

Bill Stangel:

The other part that we're dealing with on that, we do know we've got a nitrogen load coming through the system and every tile system in Wisconsin has got a nitrogen load coming through it. The question is, how big is that load and what are you going to do about it? Right now, we don't do a thing about it. It is an opportunity for us to put in a bioreactor or some other treatment mechanism in place to reduce that load.

Bill Stangel:

The bioreactor systems, it's not new. They've been around for over a decade now. They're very effective. They're very simple to operate. The challenge might be in citing them. You can't just plunk it anywhere, but in general, they're an effective mechanism for reducing nitrogen in tile water.

Bill Stangel:

Our first step in that whole process though, is making sure we're doing all we can to improve nitrogen use efficiency. Then the second step would be, can we plant a cover crop to hold it for the next crop? The third step would be doing a bioreactor or something like this to treat any nitrogen that does get through the system.

Julia Gerlach:

Can you explain how the bioreactor works?

Bill Stangel:

Okay. The bioreactor is, you're basically making a huge chamber, which is loaded with wood chips, which is a carbon source for the denitrifying bacteria that are going to convert nitrate to N2 gas, is what your objective is.

Bill Stangel:

It's an anaerobic process. You've got to make it big enough so you have enough retention time so that water is moving through slow enough, so the bacteria can do its job. That timeframe is, I'd have to go back and look, but it's hours that you need for retention. You've got to do that dance, having enough capacity to make it worth treating. You're going to treat enough nitrate and then you also have to have bypass mechanisms for when flow is too high. You just bypass it and go.

Bill Stangel:

The phosphorus treatment systems are different. It's a chemical reaction in that case, so running the water through the sleg itself, the reaction is mostly instantaneously. You have to have enough capacity so that as you spend the sites that are available for that chemical reaction, you have to have reserve capacity as it ages, put it that way.

Julia Gerlach:

Oh, okay.

Bill Stangel:

You build it big enough so you don't have to change the medium too often, and you simply have to maintain the pour space and things like that, so you can move the quantity of water through it, so you're not impeding the tile drainage system.

Bill Stangel:

I think an awareness part that I think our farm community would be helpful to them in addressing the larger picture of hypoxia in the Gulf. I said earlier, this amount of phosphorus that we're losing on a per acre basis is insignificant from an agronomic standpoint, but it is huge in its totality. The only way that we're going to wrap our heads around that and reduce the load that's passing through New Orleans right now out into the Gulf, is to collectively do what we can on our own little quarter section or whatever that might be, to reduce my contribution. We're not going to fix it by putting the screws on tighter at the sewage treatment plant.

Bill Stangel:

We just have a load that we are contributing from agriculture and we, in agriculture, are the only ones positioned to address that load that's moving from the field to the water body. I've never seen the awareness on soil resource protection and water quality that we have today.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

We are in a different space today than we were through my entire career.

Julia Gerlach:

Okay.

Bill Stangel:

That's a really good thing. For many years, the discussion was simply, what about what's happening in town? What about that golf course putting on fertilizer? What about all that runoff from lawns? Well, yeah, we can talk about that, but I think that conversation has died down and the focus is now on what are we going to do? There are more and more people having that discussion. That's a nice place to be because we are then poised to move forward. We're not sitting here throwing stones and worrying about what's happening with the Des Moines water works and having those debates.

Bill Stangel:

We're saying, "This is what we're doing in the Upper Rock River Basin" and lead rather than follow. That pride that comes with it, you can see that with the farmers who are engaged.

Julia Gerlach:

Yes.

Bill Stangel:

They take pride in what they're pulling off.

Julia Gerlach:

Yeah, absolutely.

Julia Gerlach:

Thanks to Madison, Wisconsin, AG consultant, Bill Stangel for that conversation about how healthy soils can mitigate some of the environmental effects of farming. Once again, we'd like to thank our sponsor, Montag Precision Meter and Equipment is helping producers achieve their yield goals while saving on seed and input costs. For establishing cover crops, Montage's family of seed platform equipment adapts to a variety of major brand delivery systems that will conserve seed and nutrients along with soil and water. Explore new options for your production and conservation goals with your Montag dealer or on the Montag manufacturing website. For more information about all things cover crops, visit us online@covercropstrategies.com