Heron Lake Watershed District Cover Crop Demonstration Project

Final Report for FNC12-894

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $6,642.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Jan Voit
Heron Lake Watershed District
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Project Information


Editor's Note: To view the report, see the attached PDF file.

Project Objectives:


The Heron Lake watershed encompasses approximately 472 square miles and is located in portions of Nobles, Jackson, Murray, and Cottonwood Counties in southwestern Minnesota. Heron Lake and its watershed face many of the same problems seen in other rural, agricultural areas in Minnesota. Point and nonpoint source pollution, intensive tillage, non-compliant septic systems, feedlots, and urban stormwater runoff are all problems that must be addressed in order to reduce phosphorus loading in North Heron Lake and South Heron Lake. Problems associated with these lakes include severe algae blooms, loss of rooted aquatic vegetation, loss of migratory waterfowl, rough fish impacts, reduced water clarity, and flooding.
The HLWD continually looks for avenues to provide educational opportunities that could lead to landowners and operators incorporating new techniques in their farming operations. Independent surveys conducted by HLWD and the University of Minnesota have found environmental issues and new environmental technologies to be of high value to watershed residents. In addition, landowners rarely can independently afford to implement new conservation practices. This problem permeates the entire watershed and affects any HLWD resident who is interested in improving and protecting the environment and wildlife habitat through responsible farming practices.
Cover crops are a means that could be implemented to provide erosion control in the watershed. They can also be used on a continuous basis throughout the growing season to provide crop nutrients and pest control.
This project would work with Jerry and Nancy Ackerman, local landowners and operators, to establish a cover crop demonstration site as a means to distribute new conservation technology to other agriculture producers and the community. Cover crops have been shown to be effective in reducing sediment and nutrient runoff by providing vegetative cover during erosion-prone time between fall harvest and spring planting. Studies have also shown an economic advantage for the landowner by scavenging up to 45 pounds of nitrogen that has leached below the accessible root depth of corn and soybeans and increasing organic matter.
The proposed cover crop demonstration site is directly adjacent to Jackson County Judicial Ditch 3 located in Section 33 of West Heron Lake Township in Jackson County. The cover crop project will address water quality problems by increasing nutrient uptake, reducing erosion, and minimizing nutrient leaching. The cover crop will directly benefit the community and watershed by slowing water and reducing sediment and nutrient runoff before it enters the ditch.
This project location drains to South Heron Lake. The West Fork Des Moines River and Heron Lake Total Maximum Daily Load Report found South Heron Lake to be impaired for phosphorus. This project will decrease phosphorus levels by using vegetation to reduce erosion and nutrient runoff. Vegetation has been shown to reduce sediment, nutrients, and pesticide movement in surface water. As vegetation absorbs the energy of raindrops it reduces surface sealing and runoff, impedes erosion by decreasing surface velocity, physically restrains soil movement, improves the aggregation and porosity of the soil, and increases biological activity in the soil.
The root systems of the cover crop will break up compaction to allow for better water infiltration and be used to draw nitrogen from deep below the surface back to the root zone for next year’s crop. This seed mix will scavenge nitrogen to increase soil fertility, add additional organic matter to improve soil composition, infiltration, and protection and reduce weed competition. All of these are ways to naturally improve the overall yield of the following year’s crop while reducing nitrogen application costs.


This demonstration project will build upon previous work done through different grant foundations including the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. Our project results will allow farmers within the HLWD and southwest Minnesota to gain knowledge and understanding of cover crops and their ability to be used locally. Data will show farmers that cover crops are a useful management tool for their own farm’s sustainability.
This project will deliver the following: soil samples, coverage data, and water quality monitoring data. Tillage transects, infiltration measurements, plant tissue tests, and soil samples will be taken at the cover crop fields and control fields for comparison in the spring of 2012 and the spring of 2013 to gauge cover crop success. Tillage transects measure field residue and are useful for gauging erosion and sediment runoff. Analysis will also be done to determine phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and pH (potential of hydrogen) levels. Infiltration measurements will be taken to establish water absorption rates. And plant tissue tests will be conducted by Extended Ag to analyze the nutrient levels in the plants all of which is helpful information that will be put into newsletters and newspaper articles promoting the project.
Evaluation of this project will be done by HLWD staff. Success will be defined as implementation of a cover crop, developing and distributing a newsletter and newspaper articles about the project, and hosting a field day to demonstrate the cover crop project.
Through past projects, the HLWD has found a high level of community cooperation and support. Watershed residents are interested in improving water quality and protecting native habitat through financially competitive farming methods.


Landowners and operators are more receptive to installing water quality improvement practices on their property when they have first-hand information about their effectiveness in the HLWD. The HLWD would host a field day at the demonstration site during the fall of 2012. The HLWD staff would be responsible for field day organization. The resource technician and district administrator would be responsible for drafting a newsletter highlighting the project and informing the public about the field day.
In addition to the SARE website, data and results from this project will also be shared on the HLWD website (http://www.hlwdonline.org/hlwd/).
This project will build civic aptitude by improving institutional capacity for water stewardships, encourage collaborative relationships, and create new norms for water management by encouraging citizens to take personal responsibility for the water moving across their property. This project will encourage different choices at a local level that will improve water quality. The HLWD will provide local communities with a sense of ownership in relation to water quality problems and solutions and encourage citizens to lead change rather than act as passive participants.


The results of this project will be evaluated through soil samples, infiltration measurements, plant tissue tests, and tillage transects taken before the cover crop is established in the spring of 2012 and after the cover crop is destroyed in the spring of 2013. Desirable outcomes include successfully establishing 40 acres of cover crop in the 2012 growing season and providing farmers and service providers with information about the results of the cover crop project through a field day, newspaper article, and HLWD newsletter.
The Cover Crop Demonstration Project will compare field residue amounts and nitrogen levels in the cover crop field and the control field. Both fields are comparable in size, soil type, elevation, and slope. Farm profitability will be measured by calculating the cost of seeding and establishing the cover crop versus the reduction in nitrogen application costs. The results of the soil samples, infiltration measurements, plant tissue tests, and tillage transects will show how beneficial cover crops are to the environment. Nitrogen application rates compared to aerial seeding costs will show how this project affects farm profitability.
Through past projects, the HLWD has found a high level of community cooperation and support. Watershed residents are interested in improving water quality and protecting native habitat through financially competitive farming methods. HLWD has worked together with local landowners to install over 26,030 acres of filter strip, waterway, terrace, and wetland restoration best management practices (BMPs) and 310 structural BMPs including rock inlets, rain gardens, wildlife ponds, septic systems, and water and sediment control basins. The HLWD also holds well-attended semi-annual public educational workshops.
The HLWD will highlight the progress and finding of the cover crop demonstration site in one newsletter distributed to 3,400 residents, conservationists, and legislators. This newsletter will be sent before the field day to highlight the upcoming event and progress of the Cover Crop Demonstration Project.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jerry & Nancy Ackermann
  • Ross Behrends
  • Jim Nesseth
  • Jan Voit


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.