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Mike and Amy Paustian are inviting the public to their rural Walcott farm on Thursday, Sept. 19, to learn about the conservation practices they are using to reduce nutrient flow into waterways.

Farmers and the general public are invited to a free field day on Thursday, Sept. 19, to see what Scott County farmers Mike and Amy Paustian are doing to reduce the amount of nitrate going into streams and how they are monitoring the results using drone technology.

The event, including a complimentary meal, will be 5-7 p.m. at the Paustian Family Farm, 22480 70th Ave., rural Walcott. It is sponsored by Iowa Learning Farms, a program based at Iowa State University, Ames; the Scott County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Iowa Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Reducing the amount of nitrate going into streams is important because nitrate and other farm nutrients are considered pollutants that harm water quality and are what is creating the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

The states of Iowa and Illinois have adopted strategies to try to voluntarily reduce the amount of nutrients leaving farm fields and entering the states' waterways.

For the past five years, the Paustians have incorporated soybeans into their crop rotation and used no-till and minimum tillage field preparation practices.  This means that the residue that remains after corn or soybeans are harvested is left on the land through the following spring to help keep soil in place. Rather than plow or disc up the ground for planting, seeds are planted right in the residue, so the fields are never bare.

With less tillage there's less disturbance of the ground and less chance for the soil to wash away. In addition, the blanket of residue absorbs the energy of the rain and puts it into the ground.

In addition, the Paustians have begun planting "cover" crops of cereal rye and oats after harvest. The cover crop begins growing before winter and can continue into spring, depending on the weather.

Before planting, a farmer generally will kill the crop with a herbicide. Some people question this, but most farmers would already be applying a chemical to control weeds anyway.

Meantime, the roots of the cover crops are building soil health by retaining nutrients and increasing the amount of organic matter. Healthy soil is better at absorbing water.

Taking the next step to reduce nitrate loss from their farm, the Paustians in the summer of 2018 installed a saturated buffer just north of their home.

A saturated buffer is a width of deep-rooted grasses and other vegetation planted between the edge of a farm field and the edge of a stream into which the farmer diverts his underground drainage tiles.

Almost all farms have an underground system to remove excess water from the fields to make them more tillable by drying wet spots. Historically, water from these tiles has run directly into creeks and streams, along with nutrients.

But by diverting the water laterally next to the creek in this grassy buffer area, the water percolates out, underground, infiltrating into the soil around it. If the water does seep into the creek, it will be cleansed first.

Keith Schilling, state geologist and research scientist with the Iowa Geological Survey, will share results from the first year of monitoring on the Paustians' saturated buffer.

There also will be displays of a saturated buffer and bioreactor model to show how they work, and Cassie Druhl of Partners of Scott County Watersheds will explain other ways to get involved with water quality.

Paustian Farms encompasses nearly 1,400 acres and includes a 1,200 sow farrow-to-finish hog operation.

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