Dordt College News

Research grant will fund water protection research

May 7, 2009

Research Grant

When you turn on the faucet, you expect to get clean, safe, drinkable water. Robb De Haan and Matt Schuiteman want that too.

That’s why they applied for and have been approved to receive a $50,000 grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The grant funding will be used over a three-year period to monitor nitrate leeching in field plots planted in a variety of row crops, cover crops, and perennials (hay or alfalfa).

The grant was written by Dr. Robb De Haan, professor of environmental studies at Dordt College. But De Haan says fulfilling the objective of the grant will require a collaborative effort between a local farmer, Dordt students and faculty, the Sioux Center utilities engineer, Sioux County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

“This project is the result of a farmer’s desire to take care of resources, an environmental studies professor’s desire to research a problem, and a city’s desire for good water for citizens,” said De Haan.

Taking the lead by offering land and labor for the project is Matt Schuiteman, with AJS Farms. The Schuiteman family has been farming the land that will be involved in this study for more than 30 years. It is located on County Road B40 across from Sandy Hollow Golf Course.

“It is our pleasure to be the main field cooperator for this project,” said Matt in the grant application. “It is our hope that this research will lead us to better understand how we can produce crops in sensitive areas while maintaining underground water quality.”

Schuiteman has a B.S. degree in agronomy, and has been involved in agriculture all his life. He will be responsible for plot layout, coordination and management of all plot activities. Field operations and inputs will be recorded, as well as the forage and grain yields for plots each year, using crop records to do an annual economic analysis. The Schuitemans will also draw soil samples for testing procedures and assist with a field day at the conclusion of the program.

“Our commitment to this project is extensive, as it involves land that is part of our principle operation,” said Schuiteman in support of the grant. “Our goal is to use any knowledge we would gain from this project to better our entire operation.”

The purpose of the study is two-fold:

1) to compare field crop systems and determine the best method to prevent nitrate movement below the root level of plants, while still producing the best possible financial return for landowners; and

2) to share that information with local residents, farmers, city officials, the NRCS, the Iowa DNR, and other scientists.

Sioux Center, like more than 200 small communities in Iowa, obtains more than half of its drinking water from wells that are less than 50 feet deep. These shallow wells can be impacted by land management practices next to the wells and in surrounding watershed areas.

De Haan has been monitoring water quality with agro-ecology classes for several years, measuring nitrates and phosphates. In recent years, some of Sioux Center’s 12 shallow wells have yielded water with nitrate nitrogen concentrations of more than 10 mg/L. The city blends high concentration with lower concentration water sources to stay below the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL).

This water quality issue was also addressed in agricultural practicum research conducted by a 2008 Dordt alumna, Kerri (Ewald) Posthuma.
To support Ewald’s work, a Sioux Center Source Water Protection community planning team was formed in 2007. Team members include the Sioux Center water plant operator and city utilities engineer; Sioux County NRCS officials; local landowners/operators; and Dordt College professors. This team met with Iowa DNR Source Water Protection program staff to develop a plan to address the community’s water quality concerns.

The strategy for this effort will be to farm test plots surrounding shallow wells in a variety of ways, then measure nitrate levels at various soil depths. Plots may receive organic, inorganic, or minimal commercial nitrogen fertilizer applied at the time and rate needed for crop use, using standard farm equipment. Crops planted will include continuous corn with winter rye cover crop; a brome and orchard grass/hay mix; a three year cycle of oats to alfalfa to corn; oats to red clover to corn; and soybeans to winter wheat to red clover to corn to winter rye.

Dordt agro ecology students will also participate in the project by doing soil sampling, data entry, and analysis.

For more information about this grant, “Performance of Cropping Systems Designed to Reduce Nitrate Leaching into Shallow Municipal Well Aquifers” and other grants awarded this year, see the Leopold Center For Sustainable Agriculture website.

Information about water quality issues can also be found at the Iowa DNR website.

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