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Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP): Impacts on farm economics and the environment

Children and adults displaying MAWQCP sign

By: Taylor Becker, Extension educator

Do you or a farmer you know want to make a management change? Do you want to try a new practice you’ve heard about? For farmers interested in evaluating land management impacts on water quality, the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP) is a great tool in the toolbox. The MAWQCP is a voluntary, comprehensive certification program that focuses on a whole-farm planning process.

Program success

Since its inception in 2015, the program has certified 1,196 farms representing over 839,000 acres. Farmers work with a certification specialist to go over nutrient management, tillage, edge-of-field practices and drainage, in-field management, and options for getting certified. There is no cost to farms to go through the process, and it can be a good chance to get a conservation professional’s view of your whole-farm management.

Being certified provides participating farmers with the recognition that they are farming in ways that continue to protect Minnesota’s ground and surface water resources. Certified farms also receive a 10-year regulatory certainty from new Minnesota state water quality rules or laws. Although these benefits are certainly valuable, they have fewer tangible effects on a farm’s bottom line. However, a 2020 financial analysis by the Farm Business Management Program showed that MAWQCP farms had a net income 26% greater than non-MAWQCP certified farms, demonstrating that a conservation-minded approach to agriculture has added economic as well as environmental benefits.

Two adults displaying MAWQCP sign

MAWQCP impacts on conservation

What types of practices might a farm need to implement to achieve certification? Are farms that seek certification already following best management practices? In reality, most farms need some changes to move the needle and receive the certification. In Stearns County, intensive tillage has been the most common practice that holds farms back from being certified, with at least 30% residue cover as a goal to combat soil erosion. Implementation of conservation tillage reduces sediment and associated nutrient loss due to runoff, improving surface water quality. Conservation tillage practices on MAWQCP farms have retained an estimated 122,398 tons of soil per year on agricultural fields that might otherwise have been lost. For more information on different tillage options and their impacts on water quality, visit Extension’s webpage on reducing tillage intensity.

For farmers interesting in trying new practices, MAWQCP-certified farms have access to cost-share resources to implement new conservation projects. A 2021 survey indicated that most MAWQCP-certified farms implemented additional conservation practices on top of those required for certification, including added cover crops, reduced tillage, nutrient management, and the addition of perennial vegetation. Cropping systems that implement cover crops, on top of applying the University of Minnesota recommended nutrient rates, have the potential to reduce the amount of nitrate that makes it into groundwater. Nitrate leaching below the root zone makes this valuable nutrient unavailable for crop uptake and contributes to high nitrate levels in groundwater used for drinking water throughout the state. The Extension webpage on drinking water has more information about nitrate level concerns.

You might also be interested in shifting some fields away from the traditional high production corn-soybean rotation and trying a perennial cropping system. Perennial crops like alfalfa or Kernza need less nitrogen than conventionally managed corn and have deeper rooting zones capable of scavenging nitrogen, providing a positive impact on water quality. These characteristics make perennial cropping systems ideal on particularly vulnerable fields like those within wellheads and in Drinking Water Supply Management Areas.

MAWQCP farms in highly productive irrigated sandy soils can get support by making changes that don’t require shifts in cropping systems. Irrigation water management is another common practice adopted in pursuit of MAWQCP certification and the Irrigation Endorsement. Irrigation scheduling methods such as the “checkbook method” or soil moisture monitoring can be easily implemented and lead to greater irrigation water use efficiency. Matching irrigation with crop water use has the potential to reduce water and nutrient loss below the root zone, reduce runoff and erosion, and decrease the risk of drawdown of groundwater. This March marked the first Minnesota Irrigator Program (MIP) by University of Minnesota Extension, an annual program that provides irrigation management education and whose attendance is a requirement for the MAWQCP Irrigation Endorsement.

Looking for more?

The program has set a goal to reach one million certified acres. If you are interested, reach out to a MAWQCP Area Certification Specialist or your local Soil and Water Conservation District. Having detailed and complete records (including cropping history, applications, and soil tests) makes the certification process easy. If you work with a crop consultant or advisor, they can provide your records to the certification specialist to make the process even easier. For more information and to find your area certification specialist, visit the MAWQCP website.


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