by Katie Pratt
Photography by Stephen Patton

UK researchers conduct large, field-scale evaluations of best management practices in nutrient retention for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service

“Our main mission is clean water and healthy soil. The intent of this project is to
take the results and use them to improve our conservation practices.”
−Reed Cripps, NRCS assistant state conservationist


A monitoring site sandwiched between the end of a soybean field and a rural Western Kentucky
two-lane road is a perfect example of a successful research partnership.

The site is part of a 10-year project led by Brad Lee, soil scientist in the UK Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. In the study, called Blue Water Farms, UK researchers conduct large, field-scale evaluations of best management practices in nutrient retention for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We are excited to team with agricultural producers, the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board, Kentucky Geological Survey and the USDA in a partnership that provides us with an opportunity to evaluate these BMPs in a long-term, real-world setting,” Lee said.

Kentucky is one of 12 states participating in the national project. Each state is located in a watershed of a major waterway, such as the Mississippi River, Great Lakes, or Chesapeake Bay. Kentucky’s project centers on farmland located in the Lower Green River watershed. The Green River flows into the Ohio River and then into the Mississippi River. The watershed is also home to one of the largest agricultural production areas in the state.

Connection Made

UK became involved in the project when Lee and Reed Cripps, NRCS assistant state conservationist for easements and partnerships, reconnected in Kentucky. They knew each other from previous jobs in Indiana, and Cripps was interested in starting an edge-of-field monitoring program in Kentucky, similar to the one he started while working for the NRCS in Arkansas. UK researchers are gathering their first two years of baseline data from the monitoring sites on Thompson's farm and will then study whether broadcast or direct injection of poultry litter retains the most nutrients in fields.

(L to R) Glynn Beck, Mark Akland, and Dwayne Edwards at one of several data collection stations in Daviess County

(L to R) Glynn Beck, Mark Akland, and Dwayne Edwards at one of several data collection stations in Daviess County

“I'm interested to see which practice retains the most nutrients,” Thompson said. “I’m particularly interested in the direct injection, because I have not used that application method on my farm.”

Monitoring sites should continue to pop up in the watershed as the project continues to progress. Another producer currently is going through the application process. Results from this study could lead to a change in best management practices, which could eventually affect all producers and lead to more efficient and sustainable agricultural production. Research partnerships like this make agricultural innovations happen.

“NRCS provides support to farmers to improve their stewardship of their land,” Cripps said. “Our main mission is clean water and healthy soil. The intent of this project is to take the results and use them to improve our conservation practices.”

To get the project started, Lee needed additional collaborators with expertise in hydrology, site design, and various research specialties. He asked Dwayne Edwards, UK professor in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, and Erin Haramoto, UK weed scientist, to bring their research expertise to the project. Edwards works with hydrology, monitoring site selection,

Mark Akland measuring run-off during a rain event.

Mark Akland measures run-off during a rain event.

and site design. As the research progresses, Haramoto will work with portions of the study that focus on best management practices involving weed control and cover crops.

 “It is rare for researchers to be able to collect long-term samples like these from really large fields on commercial farms,” said Haramoto, an assistant professor in Plant andSoil Sciences. “It is a great opportunity for me to study weeds and cover crops on a large scale.”

A Partnership That Works

Lee also asked Glynn Beck, a UK hydrologist in the Henderson office of the Kentucky Geological Survey, to collaborate on the project. The Kentucky Geological Survey is a UK research and public service institute. Beck's location allows him to be intimately involved in the study, and as a result, he is the project's field manager. In this role, he oversees installation of the monitoring sites, onsite sampling and contractor negotiation.

“I have a research interest in surface water and groundwater quality and use related to agricultural practices in Western Kentucky,” Beck said. “Blue Water Farms is an excellent way to be connected and collaborate with CAFE researchers and Western Kentucky farmers on water-related issues.”

Through a cooperative agreement between CAFE and the Kentucky Geological Survey, the survey's Henderson office also houses UK scientist Mark Akland. A geologist, Akland is in charge of collecting samples from the monitoring sites when a significant runoff-generating rainfall event occurs. The samples will tell researchers whether the BMPs are keeping nutrients and soil on the farm, or if they are ending up in runoff. KGS also provides Akland with laboratory space to perform a scientific procedure that tells him how much sediment is in the sample. He also uses the space to prepare samples to send to Lexington for nitrogen and phosphorus analysis.

“A successful partnership starts with having someone who will cooperate with you,” Edwards said. “The CAFE/ KGS partnership is a partnership that really works.”

Mark Akland begins the process of water sample analysis

Mark Akland begins the process of water sample analysis.

Finding Farmers

Lee knew Kentucky farmers were interested in studying nutrient management retention related to cover crops and various poultry litter applications. He also knew the project fit nicely with the commitment of UK's Grain and Forage Center of Excellence to give producers relevant and reliable data to help them use efficient and sustainable farming practices.

Producers have to meet a set of requirements before they can participate. Farms have to be located in the watershed, have the right topography and contain fields that are at least three to 15 acres. The land must be in a no-till, corn-soybean rotation. Producers had to commit to participate in a 10-year research study, which is much longer than typical research projects, with no financial gain from it.

To find willing farmers, Lee turned to his colleagues in the UK Cooperative Extension Service as well as those he already had worked with in previous studies and through commodity groups.

Clint Hardy, Daviess County agriculture and natural resources extension agent, connected Lee with Joe Thompson, whose land fit the criteria for the project. Thompson agreed to go through the lengthy application process, because he has worked on various projects with Hardy and trusted him. Thompson was the first Kentucky farmer approved for the study.

“Having UK researchers conduct their studies on local farms makes the extension service relevant to my clients,” Hardy said. “They appreciate and acknowledge that I’m in tune with the assets that they have and are excited to work with researchers to advance agriculture.”

Financial Partners

The project is funded by NRCS, but it would not be possible without support from the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board. The board has offered financial support annually since the study's inception, believing it will produce relevant and useful data. The board also has a good working relationship with CAFE and its researchers; it regularly supports many research projects in the college.

“As farmers, we want good, unbiased information to help us produce a crop in the safest, most efficient way possible,” said Larry Thomas, secretary/treasurer of the Kentucky Soybean Promotion Board. “We feel like if there is an issue, we need to know about it, so we can work toward a solution. But at the same time, if there's not an issue, we don't want to accept blame for something that we are not causing.”

Glynn Beck adjusts a monitoring station in Daviess County.

Glynn Beck adjusts a monitoring station in Daviess County.

The Next Chapter

UK researchers are gathering their first two years of baseline data from the monitoring sites on Thompson's farm and will then study whether broadcast or direct injection of poultry litter retains the most nutrients in fields.

“I'm interested to see which practice retains the most nutrients,” Thompson said. “I’m particularly interested in the direct injection, because I have not used that application method on my farm.”

Monitoring sites should continue to pop up in the watershed as the project continues to progress. Another producer currently is going through the application process. Results from this study could lead to a change in best management practices, which could eventually affect all producers and lead to more efficient and sustainable agricultural production. Research partnerships like this make agricultural innovations happen.