IFB, new partnership eye edge-of-field stewardship

Project could result in expanding list of NLRS practices to include saturated buffers.

By Kay Shipman

Illinois Farm Bureau and a new partnership are focusing on nutrient-retaining technology, raising awareness among farmers and land-improvement contractors and studying adaptations to expand the application. And the group plans to accomplish its goals in five years.

A saturated buffer connects a drainage tile outlet with an edge-of-field buffer, using denitrification and vegetative uptake to remove nutrients from drainage water.

The 2015 Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS) lists a suite of science-backed conservation practices, but not saturated buffers. Calling the NLRS “a living document,” Lauren Lurkins, IFB director of natural and environmental resources, said the partnership’s efforts may update buffer science and expand the NLRS menu of practices.

The partnership includes IFB, the Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association (LICA), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Southern Illinois University (SIU) College of Agricultural Sciences. Over five years, the partners plan to establish a new saturated buffer site each year in different counties, starting in Moultrie County.    

Research efforts will be led by Jon Schoonover, SIU hydrology professor. Schoonover previously developed and tested a two-stage saturated buffer in Massac County. He plans to test the new design with three lateral pipes instead of the standard design with a single lateral line saturating the buffer. His project will compare the new design’s function with that of an adjacent standard system.

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The new partnership will provide “opportunities to work with farmers” and extend his research efforts into other areas of Illinois, Schoonover said. Working with NRCS will also ensure a new saturated buffer system would meet the agency’s standards and cost-share requirements, he added.

In addition to improving water quality, the partnership’s work will expand education and public outreach, according to Ryan Arch, LICA executive director. LICA members learn about newer practices by attending saturated buffer field days, and those who volunteer with the installation gain hands-on experience, he said.

Arch pointed out contractors frequently are the first ones to field farmers’ questions about drainage systems and whether a new practice, such as a saturated buffer, would work. “We want our contractors to be educated enough about saturated buffers to have those conversations,” he said.

Arch also looked forward to the study of different saturated buffer designs. “The biggest benefit will be learning how we can improve what we already are doing,” he said.