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Farmers are increasingly faced with a daunting task: increasing crop yields for a growing world population while trying to minimize the impact of their management decisions on fragile watersheds.
But several years of research at a critical Indiana watershed appears to show that systems comprised of no-till, cover crops and proper nutrient management can improve soils, optimize yields and reduce fertilizer costs, and also help clean up nutrient-loading issues in waterways through better infiltration and water-storage capacity.
“This solution could actually give farmers better yields and provide everyone the things that they want with water quality and quantity issues — and not cost agriculture money. Now that is an elegant solution,” says Robert Barr a hydrologist for Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI).
Since 2005, Barr has played a leading role in gathering data and seeking solutions for water-quality problems in the Eagle Creek Watershed and Eagle Creek Reservoir in central Indiana.
The reservoir provides drinking water for the city of Indianapolis, and is fed by a watershed stretching 162 miles to the north that includes 53,900 acres of agricultural land — predominantly corn and soybean fields.
Most of the agricultural land in the watershed is tiled. While that has certain benefits for a farmer, this also speeds up the movement of water through fields, Barr says — sending more water and nutrients through the system at a greater velocity.
At issue are flooding, sediment loads, high nutrient content — particularly nitrogen and phosphorus — elevated levels of agricultural chemicals…