STORIES

Dan Brandt always wanted to be a farmer. Even on this brisk day, after hours of dealing with a malfunctioning corn dryer during peak harvest, his energy is big and positive. Clearly, he loves this quiet place not far from Eyota where he and his wife, Donna Brandt, have lived since 1994.

The farm is on high ground near the headwaters of the Whitewater River. Six hundred acres stretch away from the Brandt’s neat home, rich and largely level. Water from the crest on their farmland drains west to the Zumbro River and east to the Whitewater. Brandt knows every acre.

ATTENTION TO SOIL HEALTH, EROSION CONTROL

The land is run in a corn/soybean rotation, producing 200+ bushels corn and 60+ bushels beans per acre on average. A minimum tillage production routine focuses on leaving as much corn stalk and soybean stubble as possible in fields. About half of stalks are integrated into soil with a Krause Dominator, which follows directly behind the combine; the remainder stays on the surface. Last year’s corn ground gets a pass with a soil finisher directly before spring planting, and an early broadleaf and grass inhibitor is applied, with a single spray following about four weeks later.

“Almost everybody here is trying to leave as much trash on the ground as possible now,” says Brandt. “It improves the soil with organic matter, holds water, and helps reduce erosion. I use the Dominator because it cuts through any amount of cornstalk, minimally disturbs soil, and is a cost-effective piece of equipment.”

Terraces and grassed waterways constructed by the Brandts in 2007 stabilize soil and prevent runoff in sloped areas. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided design and 75 percent cost share for the project; an excavation contractor built the structures. After completion, where a gully twelve inches deep by two feet wide had formed in torrential rains, runoff went to nearly zero.

In 2015 Brandt constructed a series of berms to address runoff issues shared by a neighbor on adjacent land. The two hired an excavator together and completed projects at the same time.

A grassed waterway channels runoff in a field on the Brandt farm, where cut cornstalks will remain to improve soil, hold water, and reduce erosion.

A grassed waterway channels runoff in a field on the Brandt farm, where cut cornstalks will remain to improve soil, hold water, and reduce erosion.

“It goes against a farmer’s grain to lose soil,” says Brandt. “We need it for good crops. I watch how the land lays and do all I can to slow water and keep it from running down cornrows. Protecting soil is part of a sound, ongoing management plan.

LOCAL LEARNING, ADVOCACY

Corn test plots on the Brandt farm are part of a larger, farmer-led effort to reduce nitrogen application in the area. Dan works with Winona County University of Minnesota Extension educator Jake Overgaard to improve his program year to year, including end-of-season corn stalk nitrogen tests and nitrogen application test plots. Stalk tests show where nitrogen application was excessive during the current season and how it can be fine-tuned the following year. In test plots, nitrogen is applied to strips at different rates for yield comparison. Last year’s results gave Brandt the information he needed to confidently reduce anhydrous application by 50 pounds per acre, bringing total application to 150 pounds per acre this year. “Field plots help us ratchet down,” says Brandt, “and less nitrogen is a boon for water quality and my financial bottom line.”

Application comparisons, in particular, are motivating farmers across the watershed to apply less nitrogen, says Overgaard. “Statistical analysis of test strip data the last two years shows people can cut back. This is welcome news, especially when corn prices are low.”

Dan believes farmers need to lead by doing and speak up about protecting water. He’s a director for Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and has been active in his area’s farmer-led council. “My wife and I have achieved the goals we set for ourselves,” he says, “so this is a chance to learn with neighbors and give back.”