Some corn and soybean producers took a step this spring to help reduce the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen entering surface waters by participating in a no-till soybean and corn planting project.

More than 2,300 acres were planted between Colfax and Sand Creek, Wis.

Xcel Energy and the Department of Natural Resources provided nearly $9,000 in grant money to rent no-till soybean and corn planters and to analyze soil samples.

Eight producers planted 236 acres of corn, and four more sowed 400 acres of soybeans.

Phosphorus adheres heavily to soil. The more soil disturbed during planting, the greater the chance phosphorus will run off into streams, lakes and groundwater, says Lance Klessig, Dunn County Land Conservation planner.

No-till also can cut costs because it only requires one pass of the planter and saves farmers time.

"No-till keeps the soil in place," says Melanie Baumgart, conservation specialist with River County Resource Conservation and Development. "It is a lot less destructive. There is less runoff and less nutrient runoff."

River County and the county land conservation office provided technical assistance for what was billed as the Phosphorus Reduction Project.

The goal is to enable farmers — along with a steering committee — to improve water quality in the Red Cedar River Watershed. In 2007 and 2008, the committee conducted surveys with town of Grant farmers to assess why existing conservation programs were not being used.

Results of the survey and a town meeting showed farmers were most interested in adopting practices associated with conservation tillage, no-till and nutrient management.

Town of Grant farmers Bruce Winget and Mark Dietsche have used no-till for many years. Winget planted 160 acres of no-till corn and 60 acres of no-till soybeans this year. He has used no-till for 15 years, saying it reduces erosion, uses less fuel and saves time.

"I think it will grow," he says of the pilot project. "It gave farmers a chance to try it without investing in the equipment and to have expertise available."

Dietsche planted 175 acres of soybeans and 75 acres of corn using no-till this year.

"The biggest advantage is time," he says. "You don't have to work the ground at all. You just plant. You are on that field once and you're done. It saves a lot of time and labor."

The last few years of dry weather have highlighted another benefit — no-till saves soil moisture. Farmers also could be paid for carbon credits because no-till results in less greenhouse gas being released.

Farmers trying no-till have been satisfied so far, Dietsche says, although he'll wait to determine the project's success until the group's harvest results arrive.

"In agriculture, you can't afford too many mistakes," he says. "That's what makes people hesitant to try new things."

Having no-till equipment available under the pilot project helped cut some of that risk, he adds.

Planning is under way for the next phase, which aims to get more farmers involved and to further cut the need for fertilizer purchases, Klessig says.

"We hope farmers will continue to adopt the practice and neighbors will see their success," Klessig says.