On water quality benefits from cover crops…

“Using ‘catch crops’ takes up some of the nutrients that would otherwise be lost to waterways.

“A second objective for cover crops is to improve the nutrition of the subsequent, main crop. The synchronization of that is the cover crop is planted, grown, and then killed. Then, the nutrients from that activity mean the farmer wouldn’t have to apply as much – or any, depending on the situation – fertilizer for the main crop.

“Water quality concerns include sediment, either from wind or water. The other big part of the concern is excess nutrients coming off the field. That impacts the hypoxic zone in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Cover crops could actually help with the zone by keeping excess nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus – coming off the fields.”

Much of Reba’s research deals with measurements of nutrient loss off farmland.

“As for reducing sediment loss, having a cover crop is obviously better than bare soil. That, in turn, improves water quality.

“Sediment is agriculture’s Number One pollutant. However, at least from my experience in agriculture, nutrient leaching seems to garner more press. But sediment loss is a significant reason to use cover crops.”

On Reba’s work in eastern Arkansas…

“The NRCS has an ongoing project, the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI). It facilitates the implementation of conservation practices to avoid, control and trap nutrient run-off. The program works with producers to encourage various conservation practices.

“The MRBI focuses on roughly 19 project areas in Arkansas that are locally sponsor-led and receive NRCS funds to implement conservation practices to improve water quality. Part of that is to understand what we’ve been getting for those efforts.

“The MRBI is a collaborative effort that begins with program sponsors and links producers, conservation districts, universities and state and local agencies to work together on water resources issues.

“So, we’ve been working with producers in real-world situations to measure what’s coming off of those fields. We’ve done preliminary data analysis. I partner with Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, Arkansas State University and the farmers. The farmers are a huge part of making this successful – they allow us on their land, share their practices and records.

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 “The producers are interested in knowing how much is being lost off their fields. Any that’s lost is a waste of their efforts and investment.

On preliminary findings…

“Some of the preliminary data in one northeast Arkansas study site suggests that dissolved phosphorus values coming off a field with cover crops are a bit less than half the amount coming off a field without cover crops. The initial conclusion is that cover crops are using up the nutrients.

“What’s interesting is that the cover crops in this particular field are used more for wind erosion to protect young cotton plants. But there are alternative benefits from a water quality standpoint for the producer.”