Keith Alverson

Keith Alverson stands in his corn field near Chester, South Dakota, to explain his transition to drip irrigation system to Suzy Friedman of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Saving water isn’t a big priority in a year when rain is plentiful and fields are saturated, but saving applied nutrients and making sure they hit their target crop instead of running off is important in any season.

Chester, South Dakota farmer Keith Alverson got a chance to show off his new drip irrigation system for visitors from a national environmental group, highlighting the savings it brings him and what it means for water quality in surrounding lakes and streams.

Alverson is past president of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association and serves on a committee of farmers for the Environmental Defense Fund. He and his dad Ron invited the group to their farm to talk sustainability.

Working with farmers to conserve water is one priority of the Environmental Defense Fund. The nonprofit group also advocates for action on issues such as clean energy and wildlife protection. EDF staff toured South Dakota last month to see how farmers, ethanol plants and the state’s land grant university are working on sustainability in agriculture.

They’re looking at on-farm practices and policies that help sustain yields and improve resiliency in the face of more extreme weather, said Suzy Friedman, EDF’s senior director for agricultural sustainability.

“Working with farmers and ag groups is the best way to find what works in policy,” she said.

She also visited Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and other states this summer to speak with and learn from those on the ground. From floods to fires and drought, many areas have been affected by extreme weather in recent years. That makes it a good time to implement changes, according to Friedman. Decision-makers in Washington are more open to discussions about what will make farms more resilient, she said.

She’s excited when she hears what farmers like the Alversons are doing on their farm.

“Keith and Ron are always trying something new,” she said, standing in their field. “He’s always tinkering.”

Irrigation isn’t widely used across South Dakota, but about a third of Alverson’s farm around Brant Lake is irrigated. He upgraded 65 acres from center pivots to a subsurface drip irrigation system two years ago to be more efficient with water use.

The flat hose is buried about a foot underground. Sections are controlled in eight zones, and can be managed from a smart phone app.

“I think of it as putting a little IV drip right in that corn plant,” he said.

One of Alverson’s favorite features is the ability to give his crop a shot of nutrients through the irrigation system at the time they’re most needed during the growing season.

Fertilizer piped through the system goes right to the root where it can be absorbed readily. Alverson adheres to the four Rs principle of nutrient stewardship: applying the right product, in the right place, at the right time in the right amount.

Being more precise with applications has allowed him to reduce nitrogen use by 30%.

The approach helps keep nutrients in place, reduces runoff and improves water quality.

“Keeping nitrates out of the water has been pretty important,” Alverson said.

Brant Lake’s outlet, Skunk Creek, runs along his field. It was targeted as an impaired waterway and a major source of E. coli pollution in the Big Sioux River. Local officials have worked with farmers, including Alverson, to keep agricultural nutrients and livestock waste out of the water.

“Now it’s just something that we do,” he said.

Adopting drip irrigation on this field has influenced management practices on the rest of the farm, Alverson said.

On a typical year, he applies 8 inches of water to his corn crop. With the wet cycle in full effect, he’d applied just 1 to 2 inches by late August. It goes on about a quarter inch at a time.

Soil samples collected to track his nutrient needs revealed the amount of organic matter in the soil. He found that his dad and uncle’s switch to ridge till in the 1980s paid off. It’s helped increase organic matter to levels on par with the grassland across the creek, Alverson said.

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Janelle is editor of the Tri-State Neighbor, covering South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, northwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska. Reach her at jatyeo@tristateneighbor.com or follow on Twitter @JLNeighbor