Bureau County milestone increasing nutrient knowledge

Bioreactor will produce additional data, help to continue improving water quality in the county.

The Bureau County Woodchip Bioreactor Field Day featured a partially constructed bioreactor installed on an 80-acre no-till field. (Photos by Kay Shipman)

By Kay Shipman

Editor’s note: This article represents ongoing stories related to Illinois Farm Bureau’s Nutrient Stewardship Grant program.

Bureau County marked a conservation milestone last week when the Ganschow family installed the county’s first woodchip bioreactor near Walnut. The second in an edge-of-field partnership network, the new bioreactor will grow Illinois’ knowledge about treating nitrates in tile-drainage water. 

Dean Ganschow, family patriarch and one of the county’s first no-till farmers, proudly supported grandson Michael Ganschow’s efforts.

“I’m in favor of doing anything we can do to help conserve the soil and improve the quality of water going down our streams. If this (bioreactor) is something that works, I’m all for it,” he told FarmWeek.

A Bioreactor Field Day drew the curious and conservation supporters from near and far, including a vacationing Whiteside County farm couple en route to their cabin. The partners, Illinois Farm Bureau, the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, installed the bioreactor.

Drainage tiles flow into a bioreactor, a trench filled with woodchips, with outlet control structures managing water levels and retention. Woodchip bacteria convert nitrate in the drainage water into harmless nitrogen gas. The filtered water then flows through tiles into a waterway.

Laura Christianson, U of I water quality professor, will study monthly inflow and outflow water samples from the Ganschow bioreactor.

Christianson estimated an average woodchip bioreactor costs about $10,000 and has a 10-year lifespan. She advised the size and shape of woodchips are more important than the type of wood, except for oak. No more than half of a bioreactor’s woodchip fill should be oak to reduce the chance of leaching tannic acid.

Ruth Book, NRCS state conservation engineer, and Erika Luft, Bureau County district conservationist, shared cost-share opportunities to install bioreactors. Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a farmer may obtain cost-share funding of $13,000 to $15,000 for a bioreactor the size of Ganschow’s, according to Luft. That bioreactor measured 4 feet deep, 12 feet wide and 50 feet long.

Luft noted assistance may also be available through the Conservation Reserve Program for a bioreactor installed in a filter strip. She advised interested farmers to contact their local Farm Service Agency.

Unique to Bureau County’s bioreactor are two years of water nitrate data before the structure’s construction. Michael Ganschow submitted water samples for voluntary testing offered through Bureau County Farm Bureau in cooperation with the Northern Illinois Nutrient Management group. The county Farm Bureau used an IFB Nutrient Stewardship grant to support the confidential tests.

Lauren Lurkins, IFB director of natural and environmental resources, told the crowd that woodchip bioreactors are among the practices IFB supports and studies to work toward Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy goals.

Michael Ganschow reflected on farmers’ nutrient challenges: “To address this problem of nutrient losses, it will take multiple strategies. I think this (bioreactor) will be one of the tools in the toolbox to help us be successful in preventing nutrient losses from our farms.”

Content for this story was provided by FarmWeekNow.com.