Sustainability

Protecting Water Quality on the Farm and Onward

Protecting the streams, lakes and rivers running through your farm means your kids, your friends and your communities have clean water. Clean water to wash hands, brush teeth, fill water bottles and do business.

Farmers want to use the best practices to protect water for themselves — and all of the families around them.

“As a farmer, I want the water leaving our farm to be as good if not better than when it arrived,” said Belinda Burrier, a Maryland soybean farmer. “Ultimately, it goes to drinking water sources and to the Chesapeake Bay, a national treasure we’re trying to protect.”

Multiple Ways to Protect the Water

Burrier grows soybeans, corn, wheat and alfalfa with her husband and nephew. The family farm also raises a few animals each year. With a mix of crops and livestock, the family utilizes multiple practices to maintain water quality.

Grass waterways between fields.

“A natural or constructed waterway, usually broad and shallow covered with erosion-resistant grasses, used to conduct surface water from or through cropland” is how the University of Illinois Extension describes a grass waterway. This tool allows water from fields to go through a natural filter process to keep soil on the farm, not in waterways.

Buffer strips along stream banks.

Maintaining living vegetation along the edges of streams that intersect with cropland — such as grasses and other native plants — slows water runoff, traps sediment and enhances infiltration within the buffer, according to National Resources Conservation Service. Buffer strips also trap any inputs, pathogens and heavy metals that might otherwise be picked up by rain or irrigation water as it flows toward the stream. Additionally, they provide a source of food, nesting cover and shelter for many wildlife species. If properly installed and maintained, they have the capacity to remove the following from the water:

  • 50% or more of nutrients and pesticides.
  • 60% or more of certain pathogens.
  • 75% or more of sediment.

Precision application of inputs.

Burrier said “spoon-feeding” nutrients to the crops throughout the season helps ensure the fields get the right amount of input at the proper time, reducing risk for runoff or overapplication.

Rather than adding the full amount of nutrients needed by a crop to a field at the beginning of the season and risking it washing away, Burrier and her family add smaller amounts at key times in the growing season to help ensure the plant absorbs more of the nutrients when they are most needed.

No-till in the fields.

Burrier and her family have not tilled the soil in their fields in over 30 years. No-till allows natural material left on a field after harvest to remain on the soil surface. During decomposition, the material forms a protective layer and further protects the soil from wind and water erosion. This increases the retention of the nutrient-rich organic matter and decreases the amount of soil in runoff. Ultimately, no-till practices increase soil health, leading to healthier plants and typically higher yields while using the same amount of land.

Cover crops between seasons.

When fall-harvested crops such as soybeans and corn are not growing, Burrier grows other plants (e.g., annual rye) to provide protection from runoff-inducing elements, including heavy rain or sandy soil. Burrier said these cover crops also help improve organic matter and provide protection to native wildlife.

Always Improving

“We’re kind of tinkerers.” Burrier chuckled. “We don’t do something because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We’re going to experiment and try to make improvements at all times.”

Burrier married into the farm 18 years ago. Since then, she hasn’t stopped trying to make her farm and her water the best it can be for the environment and future farming generations.

“You can see, clear as day, all the improvements we’ve made along the way,” Burrier said. “As a farmer, we also look to the future. We want to be able to transition the farm to our children. And, we hope they continue to utilize those conservation practices.”

But for Burrier, it’s not just about future farming generations or the environment. She also takes water quality on her farm seriously because it affects U.S. soy and the customers who purchase it.

“If our water is good, our crop is going to be good. They’ll get the best nutrients without any runoff,” she said. “We don’t use irrigation. We run off of Mother Nature. Your evaporation goes up, then comes back down — right on our crops.”

Burrier, like other farmers, sees protecting the water as part of a larger picture of the future.

“You know that if you’re using conservation practices, your crops are getting fed really well and will feed people well down the road,” she said.

*Video and Featured Photo Credit: Belinda Burrier, Maryland crop and livestock farmer*

U.S. Soy helps make whatever you make more sustainable. Steps to improve sustainability are taken throughout the soy value chain to create an environmentally friendly product for end users to sell to consumers. Farm practices such as precision agriculture, pesticide-resistance management, reduced tillage and buffer strips all positively impact environmental goals, including water quality, soil health and greenhouse gas emissions.

Visit unitedsoybean.org/sustainability-report to download the Soy Sustainability Report

McKenna Dosier

Ag Communicator

St. Louis, MO