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UI study shows fewer nitrates in water

CHAMPAIGN — A new study from the University of Illinois has good news about water quality in the state. There are fewer nitrates in the Illinois River than there were in the 80’s or 90’s. Researchers say it’s at least 10% less than what it used to be. The goal is to cut nitrates by 45% since they flow from the Illinois River to the Mississippi and on into the Gulf of Mexico. Farmers and agriculture companies are working together to help make that happen.

It’s been a tricky start to planting season for farmers, to say the least.

“It’s been an okay spring,” said John Reifsteck, who is a farmer in Champaign. “It’s been cold. It’s been wet.”

Reifsteck’s corn is planted and starting to come up already, but he’s still working on getting beans in the ground.

“Planting is the most critical part of the farming operation because when you get a crop planted well, you get a good crop established, then you have a great opportunity for good yields,” said Reifsteck.

Even before they start thinking about planting, farmers are fertilizing. And with time, they’ve learned better ways to do it.

“As opposed to treating one whole field as a field and putting one rate of fertilizer, we just don’t do that anymore,” said Reifsteck.

“Apply them at the right times with the right sources and at the right rates, so we’re using the nutrients as best as we can,” said Lance Ruppert, who is Growmark’s director of agronomy.

Ruppert works with farmers across central Illinois. He says technology is making it easier for them take care of crops, without letting too much leak into the groundwater.

“With nitrogen, we’re using stabilizers to try to hold the nitrogen in place longer until the crop can take it up,” said Ruppert. “That’s the end goal, for the crop to use it effectively. We’re trying to do environmentally-friendly practices.”

Ag experts say they’re happy to hear about lower nitrate levels, since they’ve been working on new strategies and farmers say they’re looking forward to the rest of the season.

“I’ve been doing this quite a while now,” said Reifsteck. “I’ve had wet years. I’ve had dry years. The crop will get planted. We will harvest a crop this fall. I’m optimistic about that. We just don’t know how much and we don’t know how much we’re going to sell it for.”

Keeping the nitrates in the soil is also better for farmers economically. Researchers say higher corn yields have also been connected to lower nitrate levels in groundwater.

The state’s water survey researchers say conditions haven’t been ideal for farmers. The ground has been wetter and cooler than usual through the middle of the month. Soil temps are about 58 degrees, which is six degrees below average. Moisture underground was highest in southern Illinois.

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