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If you have ever wondered what farmers do to protect water quality on their farms…look no further!

Brandt Underwood has witnessed the dedication of producers in stewarding natural resources during his last 20 years of working as an agronomist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“They were doing a good job when I started working with them and are doing an even better job now,” Underwood said. “Their goal is to leave it better than they found it.”

NRCS works alongside farmers to provide conservation solutions that protect natural resources and aid in food production. In fact, there are several hundred conservation practices NRCS helps farmers implement. Here is an up-close look at two common conservation practices Texas farmers use to protect water quality.

1. Pest Management

A farmer’s crop can be susceptible to damages from weeds and insects. Underwood said pest management is a proactive approach that involves monitoring and suppression strategies to control pests in the most efficient way possible.

“When we look at pest management, we don’t just control every pest we see in a field. We have what we call economic thresholds. So, if it’s an insect, there has to be a certain population that would cause significant damage to our plant or reduce yield,” Underwood explained.

As part of proper pest management, farmers scout their crop fields for pests. In the case of insects, if beneficial insects in the field are keeping the predatory insects in check, then no crop protection product is applied. If a pest population has grown too large, then farmers make a   careful decision on whether to apply an insecticide or herbicide.

“We do this to avoid making a pesticide or herbicide application. While using pest management, our goal is to make as few trips across the field with any kind of application while protecting the crop at the same time,” he said.

Underwood said one of the biggest beneficiaries of pest management is water quality. He said if farmers are watching, scouting and making selective applications, ultimately, less product winds up in the environment. Pest management, when combined with soil health practices, or conservation practices that improve soil quality to function as nature intended, further protects water quality and reduces runoff when a pesticide or insecticide application is made.

“Any product we put out there, if we’ve reduced the runoff and erosion from that field, [that product] will be held on site. Therefore, we are going to protect water quality by keeping all those products where we apply,” he said.

2. Nutrient Management

All plants need nutrients to grow, which is why farmers apply fertilizer, or nutrients, needed for crop growth – namely nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. NRCS works with farmers to develop nutrient management plans. These plans help farmers optimize crop yields with precise application of fertilizer all while protecting the environment.

Through nutrient management, Underwood said the soil is tested by taking samples from a field, which are then sent to a lab where they are analyzed to determine the current levels of nutrients in the soil.

“The lab will tell us the amount of fertility needed to make a crop yield goal. So, when we do make an application, it’s a prescribed application,” Underwood explained.

With this data, farmers can apply fertilizer to their field in a precise manner, which means nutrients are applied in necessary quantities at the proper time using the right method of application. Underwood said applications are generally split to reduce the amount of active ingredient in the environment.

This precise management of nutrients helps protect water quality by reducing the risk of runoff into surface water sources or potentially leaching into groundwater. Not only is nutrient management environmentally responsible, it makes economic sense.

“It’s economically responsible for the farmer because crop fertility is very expensive, so the less you have to put out, the better it for is a farmer,” he said.

The Reason

Underwood emphasized that agricultural producers are hardworking stewards of natural resources who believe sustainability is important for their farms, their bottom line and the future.

Interested in learning more about conservation practices Texas farmers use? Check out the second blog in the series – Conservation Up Close: Soil Health.

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