On-farm Demos Aim to Boost Soil and Water Quality Practices

May 11, 2021

By Kurt Lawton •  From Spring 2021 American Soybean magazine

When innovative farmers and conservation-seeking partners collide, their synergy can extend benefits to soybean growers across counties, states and regions.

That is the hope and goal behind an American Soybean Association (ASA) grant program with the Walton Family Foundation. Three farm families received conservation demonstration grants to implement projects that find conservation solutions that make long-term economic sense and contribute to improving the sustainability of U.S. soybeans.

All three grant winners have excitedly embraced this grant as an investment to improve their family farm operations while educating and encouraging other farmers to find a fit for such practices. Each farm project—from cover crop research, irrigation and nutrient efficiency, and tile water nutrient removal—embodies the spirit of conservation, soil health and water quality goals of ASA and the Walton Family Foundation.

The grant recipients were selected in late summer 2020, by a panel of conservationists, agronomists and natural resource professionals. ASA and Walton Family Foundation Conservation Champions and ASA’s Conservation Legacy Award winners from the past five years were eligible to apply for the grant.

Check out these innovative grant project winners to see how their ideas could enhance your farm.

Arkansas: Brad Doyle and Joyce Berger Doyle, Berger Farms


Brad Doyle inspects cover crop plots on his Arkansas farm. Photo Credit: Kurt Lawton

Unlike cover crop growth in more receptive Midwest soils, northeast Arkansas farmers Brad Doyle and Joyce Berger Doyle face a challenge to find species that can thrive in their clayey hardpan soils better suited for rice and ducks.

Given their agronomy, soil and plant breeding research backgrounds, the Doyles understand the need for more cover crop research in their watershed area and how to conduct accurate tests. They developed a scientifically replicated test plot with 45 different cover crop species, combinations and seeding rates.

“We currently don’t see a lot of cover crops in this area. Our goal is to determine the right species and blends, the right seeding rates, and a better understanding of biomass amounts that can reduce early weed growth while capturing carbon and recycling nutrients,” Brad says. “Most importantly, we plan to use this plot as an education tool to encourage and expand cover crop adoption among farmers in this watershed.”

Following an early October soybean harvest last fall, Brad drilled 45 different 5x20-foot cover crop seedings in a furrow-irrigated one-acre plot, replicated and randomized like their crop plot trials. “We included cereal rye, black oats, wheat, triticale, numerous brassicas, annual and perennial clovers, Austrian winter peas and hairy vetch—seeded in different combinations and seeding rates to try a little bit of everything,” Brad says.

The cover crops emerged by October 13, exhibiting good growth by October 30. After one month, he saw excellent growth with the cereal grains—rye, triticale, wheat and black oats. We’re also seeing some good biodiversity of mixes coming through, some brassicas, clovers and peas. The plots also show some initial volunteer soybeans, which will die out once the hard frost arrives.

As a trained agronomist and crop consultant, Brad is excited about discovering what works best and what is the most economical. “If we can achieve cover crop growth like some of these plots to reduce early Palmer pigweed populations, that could save some herbicide input costs.”

He likes the concept of adding living roots after cash crop harvest. The goal is to improve soil health and organic matter over time—perhaps even recycle some nutrients—as long as the cover crop can be terminated to allow successful cash crop planting and growth. “If the soil can improve and hold some water during dry spells, then we could irrigate less and save money,” Brad says.

Any new practice like cover crops must fit into current agronomic practices to be successful, and it won’t take off overnight. “As a plant breeder, I realize our results will be from one year, one environment, but we will have replications and combinations to start learning cover crop species for this area,” Joyce says.

Kansas: Andy and LaVell Winsor, Winsor Family Farm

Andy (left) and LaVell (right) Winsor are experimenting with subsurface drip irrigation technology on their Kansas farm. Photo Credit: Kurt Lawton

A focus on greater irrigation water and nutrient use efficiency since 2005 led Andy and LaVell Winsor to experiment with subsurface drip irrigation technology.

Farming the diverse contours, soil types and bottom ground in the Kansas River Valley between Topeka and Lawrence, Kansas, the Winsors are installing the final phase of a drip tape project that began in 2015.

“We’ve learned a great deal about water efficiency and timely nutrient delivery for crop needs,” says Andy. “That’s why we’ve reduced flood irrigation and increased our use of pivots with drop nozzles and subsurface drip irrigation. We’re also fortunate to have well permits from the alluvial water table and some creek water rights in our river valley for the 20% of our acres that are irrigated. It’s not a depleting resource, and we’re not using the Ogallala aquifer.”

The final phase of a drip tape project is being installed on Winsor Family Farm. Photo Credit: Kurt Lawton

So far, their experience with subsurface drip irrigation technology has proven numerous benefits. “As I’ve told many farmers, this drip tape technology is a good deal. It costs a little more than a pivot, but it offers so many more benefits,” Andy says. “It can irrigate all areas of a field; water use efficiency is 15% to 20% better, you can change water rates by field zone, and put fertilizer right into the root zone for better plant use.”

Time and labor savings with drip tape and significantly reduced stress are a huge benefit compared to pivot irrigation. Being able to plant, spray and harvest without moving the pivots, along with less maintenance and tire repair, is worth a lot of money, he says.

Andy also cites value beyond the product offered by Netafim. “Their staff agronomists have built an online fertility tool to help figure out fertility needs and timing. It’s almost like having a fuel gauge on your crop, so you know when your fertility will run out. You can be proactive and build fertility in the root zone to keep your crop from having a bad day,” he adds.

Farm conservation and innovation practices have a long history with the Winsors’ third-generation farm. Andy’s grandparents and his dad were building terraces and waterways back in the 1950s and 60s. When Andy joined the farm full-time in 1994, he continued this legacy by being an early adopter of grid soil sampling, yield monitoring and variable-rate fertility. Over the last nine years, he has honed his cover crops to improve soil health—even planting soybeans green into growing cereal rye.

Farming near urban areas, LaVell adds that neighbors have raved about seeing green fields growing after harvest. “Aesthetically, it is very pleasing to them, and we like to help them understand the health value that cover crops bring to our soils and water quality. It’s a legacy we hope to pass on to our next generation.”

Wisconsin: Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian, Hammer Kavazanjian Family Farm

Nancy Kavazanjian, left, and her husband Charles Hammer, right, test tile water on their Wisconsin farm. Photo Credit: Kurt Lawton

 Decades before soil health became a recognized valuable science, Charlie Hammer and Nancy Kavazanjian launched their Wisconsin family farm in 1980 with the motto, “Our Soil, Our Strength.”

“We’ve dedicated ourselves to doing what’s best for our soils and our crops 41 years ago,” Nancy says. “All of our conservation and agronomic efforts to build healthier soils continue to pay benefits. And we’ve always been very involved in water quality because we have many lakes here in Wisconsin. Now we’ve installed an innovative proof-of-concept system to remove phosphorus from tile water and keep nutrients on the land.”

Charlie and Nancy were discussing the merits of an edge-of-field bioreactor during a family dinner. “My brother Ed Kavazanjian Jr., a geotechnical engineer at Arizona State University (ASU), asked why we weren’t considering phosphorus (P) removal, which neither of us knew existed.”

This innovative phosphorus-removal technology using a steel by-product—slag—was lab tested at ASU for more than a year. “Once we had proof of concept that it removed phosphorus from water in the lab while allowing for the use of a downstream bioreactor to manage nitrogen, our next step was a field demonstration. And Nancy and Charlie agreed to host the field site,” explains Nasser Hamdan, a Senior Investigator on the project for ASU’s Center for Bio-mediated & Bio-inspired Geotechnics.

They selected the edge of a 70-acre field that tile drains into a wetland then into a nearby recreational lake. The phosphorus filter design includes a smaller geomembrane-lined, rock-covered filter pit that contains steel slag. Field tile lines, with shutoff valves, feed the water into this slag filter then into a larger open holding pond where the phosphorus precipitates out.

“Once the soluble phosphorus in the water hits the steel slag, a chemical reaction begins to remove the phosphorus out of the water,” Charlie says. “We see positive phosphorus reduction already, but the engineers want at least six months of data.”

Hamdan likes the current progress with this phosphorus removal system. “We’ve seen near-complete removal, which is impressive to achieve because it’s more difficult to remove P in tile water that already has a low P level,” Hamdan says.

Like his dad and grandparents, Charlie is proud of their farm’s innovative practices over the decades. “What’s even more important is to demonstrate the technology value to a wider network of farmers, watershed and conservation groups and our lake association neighbors. And we plan to host a field day in 2021 to showcase the results.”

The next step is to add a bioreactor to this system to remove nitrates and phosphorus from the tile water. “We’d love to perfect a combination system that brings us clean water so we can show the community that we are part of the solution,” Nancy says.