Data as an Eco-Social Feedback: Connecting Farmers, Actions, and Outcomes through Water Quality Monitoring and Modeling

Understanding nutrient management on farms

Cover crops on fields are useful for retaining nitrogen and preventing soil erosion. Image courtesy of Landon Yoder.
A tile drain outlet in a ditch where farmers are collecting water samples for the project. Image courtesy of Landon Yoder

The Problem

Despite decades of effort and billions of dollars invested in conservation practices, water contamination from agriculture remains a complex and widespread challenge, contributing to unsafe drinking water, algal blooms, and dead zones downstream.

Water pollution from fertilizer runoff is challenging to solve for multiple reasons. There are many dispersed sources but few monitoring locations, making it difficult to know how much loss is occurring from a given farm. Moreover, the consequences of nutrient losses occur far downstream and take years to be detected. The distant and delayed outcomes provide little information to farmers that are relevant for making management decisions.

As farms in Indiana experience heavier rainfall due to climate change, there is a risk that more nitrogen fertilizer is being lost from soil erosion and subsurface tile drainage into waterways.

The Project

To determine how much nitrogen is being lost from tile drains – potentially costing farmers money and contributing to water quality degradation – an IU research team is working with 25 Hoosier farmers. The team is providing supplies and instructions for farmers to collect water samples and measure water flow during the growing season. The samples are then sent to an IU lab to determine how much nitrogen is present in the water.

As part of the project, the team is also working with farmers to better understand their fields and the soil and water quality around them. The team is conducting interviews before and after the study to learn what participating farmers think about nutrient management and what they have learned through the study. At the conclusion of each sampling period, the team will provide the farmers with reports on how much nitrogen they may be losing from their fields and compare their results to the average from all participants.

The Path Forward

After conducting the first year of sampling, the team received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend its project through 2023. Over the next two years, the team will continue doing interviews with farmers, sampling their water, and measuring nutrient levels.

Project Data

The research team is collecting data on the water running off crop fields and conducting interviews to assess farmer knowledge of nutrient management.

Data is collected on water quality and farmer knowledge of nutrient management.

Before and after the study, the team asks participating farmers about their farms, what they think about runoff on their farm, their ability to retain nitrogen, and what they expect to find from the water samples.

The team provides each of the participants with a five-gallon bucket and a graduated cylinder to collect the water samples. The participants will then collect 10 samples from three different tile drains over the growing season by filling up the bucket or the graduated cylinder halfway and recording how long it takes. The participants then send the sample to an IU lab to quantify how much nitrogen is present.

Flow, volume, load, and concentration are reported for the water samples. The interview responses are coded for key themes.

The data is formatted in CSV files.

The data will be available in publications and policy briefs.