Vegetation buffers are requred by the Buffer Law to be 16.6 feet on public ditches and 50 feet on public waters. A tool developed by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and the U of M will help farmers find alternative practices to utilize land most efficiently and reduce the width of the buffers when possible. Provided.

The Nov. 1 deadline is quickly approaching for Minnesota farmers to commit to a plan to comply with the Minnesota Buffer Law. The law requires farmers to install a 16.5-foot buffer on public ditches and a 50-foot buffer on public waters that run along their farmland.

“There was a lot of questions and discussions concerning the law from its conception,” Paul Meints, research director for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA), said.

The law was put in place to prevent phosphorous and sediment runoff. While the law left room for alternative practices to be implemented, it wasn’t clear on what those acceptable alternatives would be.

“We heard loud and clear from our growers across the state that the one size fits all solution to buffers was not the right solution,” Kirby Hettver, vice president of the MCGA board, said. “So we saw it as a great opportunity for the Corn Growers Association to step up to the plate and help BWSR come up with a solution to the problem they had.”

So, the MCGA approached the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) with an idea.

“We said ‘We’d like to have the U come up with a tool, and if you’ll accept it, we’ll fund it,’ ” Hettver said.

“The U has been a great source for unbiased research for us,” Meints said.

So, with the go-ahead from BWSR, the MCGA partnered up with a research team from the U of M in January to come up with a tool that helps keep farmers in compliance with the law, limit sediment and phosphorus runoff, and keep as much land usable as possible.

“We did a literary review on the efficiency of different practices and at the same looked at some evidence of vegetative buffers using two models. The first was The Phosphorus Index, which was developed in Minnesota. The second was the Vegetative Filter Strip Model, which wasn’t developed in Minnesota but is still relevant,” David Mulla, professor and Larson Endowed Chair in soil and water resources at the U of M and lead researcher responsible for development of the Decision Support Tool, said. “What we had to do was evaluate how efficient vegetative buffers are with baseline practices to see if they had equal or greater benefits.”

This was quite the undertaking, and the team ended up dividing Minnesota into 39 specific regions that are different in regard to things like soil, slopes and crops that can be grown. A single practice isn’t going to work everywhere, and the tool takes all this information and more into consideration.

“It’s pretty sophisticated. The producer enters the information about their particular farm and can select from around 12 different alternatives. The tool will tell the farmer whether or not that alternative will provide equal or lesser benefits,” Mulla said.

Although in no case can a vegetative buffer be completely eliminated, it can allow a lesser width, to the point where in some cases a 5-foot buffer can be acceptable.

Mulla explained that a vegetative buffer can have a wide range of effects. In some places, it can reduce sediment and phosphorus loss by close to 100 percent, while in others it may only reduce it by 3 percent. In some places, a no till practice may have greater benefits than the vegetative buffer.

“The tool works well, and it’s effective. It gives farmers the opportunity to try out a narrower buffer and other alternative practices that may be more suitable to their land,” Mulla said.

MCGA is proud of the tool that’s been created and is confident it will be helpful to Minnesota farmers.

“They really did an extraordinary job in pulling together current science for the tool. I cannot commend them enough. The tool is simple, but complete,” Meints said.

Farmers now have the ability to access the tool, which is in Excel spreadsheet form, online at the BWSR website to get familiar with it before going into their Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) office to submit their plan to be in compliance with the Buffer Law. The SWCD office can also help farmers walk through the tool to come up with the solution and the plan will need to be submitted to them by Nov. 1. Farmers have until July of 2018 to fully implement their plans.

“There is a common sense in this tool that was previously lacking. It gives a template to go by and starts a conversation to provide real options,” Hettver said.

The tool is also fully approved by the BWSR board. This means that when a farmer uses the tool, there’s no risk that the BWSR could then come back and say it’s not acceptable, as it’s already approved.

It is important to note that the Buffer Law does not supercede the ditch laws, in which the redetermination of ditches could change some requirements.

“That could be quickly or in years and years, so this gives them options until that happens,” Meints said.

Ultimately, the law was put in place to help assist impaired waters in certain areas of the state with concentrations of phosphorus or sediment that is too high.

“If we reduce that amount, those waters could be swimmable and fishable,” Mulla said. With a combination of buffers and alternative practices, this could be a real possibility in the future. The Decision Support Tool could have a role in how this reduction happens as it requires that the options available to farmers have equal or greater benefits than the standard Buffer Law requirements.

“It protects the land from phosphorus and sediment loss while allowing a reduction in the buffer, allows farmers to be in line with the law and protects the water,” Meints said.

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