When the Janski family of St. Augusta, Minnesota, learned about the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, they jumped at the chance to get certified. Participating in the program represented another step in their ongoing efforts to conserve resources.
“We’d already switched to no-till to reduce soil erosion and inputs like fuel, but we wanted to also improve our management of irrigation water, help wildlife habitat, and do our part to ensure water quality by preventing runoff from our fields, ” says Daniel Janski.
Along with his parents, Richard and Marlys, brother Thomas, and cousin Tyler, Janski is a partner in Janski Farms LLC. The family manages more than 4,400 acres of corn, soybeans, small grains, alfalfa, and edible peas and grows cover crops. They also run a 210-cow dairy, a 750-head on-farm feedlot, and 24 beef cow-calf pairs.
After applying for the program and working with a certifier to identify water-quality risks on their farm and ways to address the risks, the Janskis became water-quality certified in 2021. They joined more than 1,100 Minnesota farmers who are also certified.
The voluntary Water Quality Certification Program launched in 2016. The program came from brainstorming by representatives of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and other agencies.
“Because Minnesota is a headwater state — meaning all the water in the state eventually leaves — we decided to take a novel approach to addressing water-quality concerns,” says Brad Jordahl Redlin, program manager. “We decided to create a voluntary opportunity for farmers to take the lead in implementing conservation practices that protect our water.”
Farmers in Minnesota can apply for the state program at either their local cooperative or soil and water conservation district (SWCD) office. A program-approved certifier — typically a SWCD employee — schedules an on-farm visit with the applicant.
“The certifier conducts a whole-farm risk assessment to find management areas that might be posing risks to water,” says Redlin. “If risks are found, the certifier and farmer put their heads together to find ways to mitigate these risks. But in the end, the farmer finds his or her own path to mitigation of the risks.”
Directing the participant to cost-sharing programs or other sources of technical or financial assistance is also the certifier’s role. In some cases the applicant may qualify for a $5,000 grant available through the Water Quality Certification Program to help implement practices to better protect water.
Once certified, farmers are deemed in compliance for a 10-year period with any new laws enacted relating to agricultural water quality.
For the Janskis, the certification process identified three management areas that could lead to continued improvements in their ongoing efforts to better conserve soil and water.
“We’ve been focusing on making a full conversion to no-till, diversifying our crops and cover crops, and fine-tuning our pivot irrigation management,” says Janski.
Through the program, the Janskis obtained sensors that monitor soil moisture in the soil profile. The sensors help them decide how much water to apply to fields and give an accurate reading of how much they’re actually using and applying.
“We used to dig with a shovel to see how much soil moisture there was, but this is a much more accurate way of knowing how much water to apply,” says Janski. The sensors also document what the Janskis were already observing but not quantifying: Cover crops conserve moisture.
“We’re finding that after termination, the cover crop residue on the field preserves soil moisture,” says Janski.
Fine-Tuning Cover Crops
While the Janskis began growing cover crops before applying for water-quality certification, participating in the program has helped them fine-tune the process. On fields where cash crops have been harvested by mid-September, they plant a multispecies cover crop blend with cereal rye as the main component.
“After about September 20, we will only plant cereal rye as a cover crop,” says Janski. “We have found that seeding other species at that late a date doesn’t always provide enough growing time for them to produce significant growth.
“We’re also grazing some of the cover crops, but we’re in the experimental phase of this,” he says. “We understand that grazing provides benefits to plants and soil life through the cattle’s saliva and their hooves trampling the soil surface.”
Along with including cereal rye as a key component in cover crop mixes, the Janskis also look for windows of opportunity in the crop rotation to grow cereal rye as a stand-alone crop for producing grain and straw. They harvest the grain for cover crop seed and use the straw for livestock bedding.
Since working with their SWCD certifier, the Janskis have realized that planning their crop rotation gives them the opportunities they need to better grow the rye for grain and straw.
“We’re always looking ahead now, at least two years in advance, so that we have a plan established for what crop to grow in what field,” says Janski. “In years past we didn’t have a long-term plan.”
They have found that cereal rye harvested from an early-planted crop yields the best. That means finding ways to harvest previous cash crops early enough to provide timely planting of the rye. Sometimes that might mean harvesting a field of corn for silage to make room for planting rye in late summer. Growing an early-maturing variety of soybeans can provide a window of opportunity as well.
Fine-tuning such management efficiencies as those resulting from strategic planning can lead to increased farm profitability for farmers undergoing the water-quality certification process. (See “Participants More Profitable.”)
Enhanced profitability also results from adoption of some conservation practices, such as no-till, which can potentially lower costs.
“By reducing or eliminating tillage, we’ve saved money on fuel,” says Janski. “Since converting to full no-till, we’ve cut our fuel use by two tankers a year. And I have heard from others that down the road, as our no-till system matures, our use of synthetic fertilizers could be less.”
Participants More Profitable
A subset analysis by Minnesota Farm Business Management found that Minnesota farmers who have undergone the water-quality certification process are more profitable than their noncertified peers.
“Those that are certified have an average net income that’s 20% higher than those that are not certified,” says Brad Jordahl Redlin, water-quality certification program manager. “When farmers are maximizing conservation performance, it can reduce fertilizer and chemical use, along with tillage and diesel fuel. They’re fine-tuning their expenses.”
Marketing premiums resulting from the clean-water certification status can also result, further increasing profitability, he adds. While product premiums are difficult to glean from the generic marketplace, they’re more possible for farmers marketing directly to consumers.
As farmers such as Janski continue to address the conditions on their farm that could possibly threaten water quality, the overall health of the water flowing out of Minnesota will certainly improve, says Redlin.
“At this point in the Water Quality Certification Program, we can’t see the whole impact it’s having on natural resources because we’re only a few years into the program,” he says. “But as farmers increase their use of conservation practices, we know that water quality is going to be better.”
For Janski, the process of adopting conservation practices is teaching him a lot about soil health and has put him in a working relationship with NRCS.
“This has been a team effort between us and them,” he says. “I’m learning more about the life in the soil, and this journey is teaching me that we’re not the only ones using the ground.”
More detail about the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program is available at https://bit.ly/32g1gJG.