Bill and Karolyn Zurn, and their sons, Eric and Nick, farm in Becker and Mahnomen Counties, and they know the challenges of production agriculture.
Included in their challenges is farming land that has no small number of lakes, ponds, wetlands, and creeks as well as having fields that vary from little or no slope to areas that are steeply sloping.
The Zurn family meets this challenge by practicing “conservation farming.” and they continue today to make the decisions necessary to protect the water and soil as they grow corn, soybeans, and wheat on the diverse land they farm. The Zurns want their land to remain productive for future generations.
This conservation mindset has many benefits, one of which is that the Zurn farms are now Water Quality Certified in the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program.
Their farming operation joins over 970 Water Quality Certified farming operations in Minnesota’s unique, five-year old program that recognizes farmers’ efforts to protect the state’s water quality.
For a farming operation to be Water Quality Certified, a system or combination of conservation practices needs to be adopted on the land – conservation practices that are suited for that particular soil type, topography, and type of farming operation.
That’s just what the Zurns have done, and here are the ways this family protects our water and soil:
Controlling gully erosion
In a major effort to control gully erosion over many years, the Zurns installed more than 80 water and sediment control basins (small dams) in areas of concentrated flow of water - and they’re scheduled to construct more of these structures in the future.
These small dams temporarily retain the water that flows in sloping drainageways after a rain and prevent it from rushing down the hill and causing gully erosion. The Zurns have participated in NRCS and SWCD cost-sharing programs to construct some of these small dams, and others they’ve built at their own cost.
In recent years, the Zurn family made decisions to reduce the tillage they perform on their cropland. The result is more stalks and stubble from the harvested crop (“crop residue cover”) remain on the soil surface throughout the year, protecting the soil from erosion caused by rain or wind.
After planting of soybeans into tilled cornstalks, the Zurn’s crop residue cover (cornstalks) often is as high as 50% - 60% cover on the soil. When the Zurns made the change to less aggressive tillage after soybean harvest, the result was the soil covered by 30% - 50% crop residue cover in the fall, winter, and into spring. This protective blanket of stalks and stubble keeps soil erosion rates low.
Grassed filter strips
The Zurns have established many grassed filter strips along the numerous small lakes, ponds, and creeks on their farmland. These areas of vegetation along the water’s edge trap soil sediment and nutrients before they enter the water.
Bill, Eric, and Nick Zurn protect water quality as they control weeds, insects, and diseases in their fields. They hire a professional crop consultant who scouts their crop fields and provides them with recommendations for pest management.
Their consultant’s crop scouting reports aid the Zurns in decision-making, as do the use of University thresholds for treatment of pests, such as soybean aphids. Modes of action are rotated in their choice of crop protection products with the goal of preventing pest resistant issues. They’ve also sampled for soybean cyst nematodes and used drones to gather field information.
Careful nutrient management is important to the Zurns. They apply their fertilizer in the spring just prior to planting corn. They perform soil testing regularly to make decisions based on University recommendations for applications of phosphate, potash, and other nutrients. The Zurns’ crop consultant develops a detailed fertilizer application plan for each growing season, and the family also works with the Detroit Lakes NRCS staff as they participate in the CSP program, which prioritizes proper applications of nutrients needed for crop development.
In recent crop seasons, the Zurns have planted cover crops, primarily winter rye, after the harvest of their field crops. Cover crops provide many benefits, including: reducing soil erosion; slowing water runoff rates; increasing soil organic matter; and preventing loss of nutrients to water sources.
Involved from the beginning
This system of the Zurn’s conservation practices does much to protect water quality, and that’s how their farming operation achieved Water Quality Certification. Of note, Bill Zurn was involved in the initial planning efforts to develop the Minnesota Ag Water Quality Certification Program, and now his family’s farming operation is certified in this program.
The Zurns understand the importance of land stewardship; and Eric says their conservation accomplishments are because of a team effort: “This never would have happened without the diligent work of the NRCS in Becker and Mahnomen counties. We have worked with the NRCS for over 30 years; they have great people with high integrity. They are rock stars in this industry - always trying to help the farmer make the best decisions. The NRCS is one of the most well-run agencies in the USA, and the staff in these counties are outstanding. The credit belongs to them.”
“Congratulations to Bill, Karolyn, Eric, and Nick on receiving their Water Quality Certified Farm sign in September of this year,” said Jim Lahn, the program’s area certification specialist, who works with the program in 11 counties in north central Minnesota. “The Zurns can be proud of their efforts to protect our water and soil resources, and I appreciate that they explore the use of new conservation practices.”