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A Recipe for Success: Improving Water Quality in the Indian Creek Watershed

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Jim Ifft, his son and their wives have a 1,600 acre corn, soybean and wheat operation in the Indian Creek Watershed. This season will be Jim’s 42nd crop season, and each season brings more challenges and learning opportunities.

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Jim is one of many Illinois farmers responsible for water quality improvements in the Indian Creek Watershed.

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Designated a Natural Resources Conservation (NRCS) Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed Initiative (MRBI) watershed in 2010, the Indian Creek watershed project focused on improving water quality in a small agricultural watershed in central Illinois.Jim talking photo


This locally-led, community driven project encouraged landowners to voluntarily adopt conservation practices and systems, such as cover crops, nutrient management plans, grassed waterways, and residue and tillage management, to improve water quality and on-farm nutrient use efficiency.

Many partners – from federal and state agencies to local agricultural retailers – came together to provide financial assistance and extensive outreach and education to landowners. To date, roughly 60 percent of landowners in the watershed have implemented conservation cropping systems, proving that voluntary adoption of conservation practices is possible.

 “The more we did, the more other partners wanted to get in on the action, which meant more financial help and more boots on the ground helping landowners,” said NRCS Livingston County District Conservationist, Eric McTaggart.

As a hunter and an outdoorsman, Jim has always believed in conservation. He’s been no-till on soybeans for about 25 years and hopes to be 100 percent no-till on corn in the near future. “I probably haven’t adopted some conservation practices as fast as I should have,” he said. But to Jim’s credit, he’s constantly looking for better ways to farm.

Cover crops and no-till

Jim started cover crops about five years ago. “Our first attempt was a disaster. But we did more research and went from there.” And Jim is still researching.

“Every cover crop article I can get my hands on, I read. The concept – it just makes sense to me,” he said.Cover crops bag


He recently planted 25 different cover crop species as test plots. He’ll watch how they grow, how they act in winter, and look at the soil and roots. “This is fun stuff to do – it revitalizes me,” Jim said with a huge grin.field day image


Not only is it fun, it’s also helping to educate several other farmers in the area. Jim often hosts field days on his farm. His last field day attracted about 60 people. “What I’ve learned, industry experts are good, but hearing and seeing it from farmers means more. We’re the ones that have been beat up.”

Jim’s research and willingness to try new things have paid off. Cover crops and no-till have cut erosion from wind and water to practically nothing on his land. “We had a big storm and there was a big difference in my field and the guy who chisel plows. His field was dirty, blowing away soil. My field wasn’t moving and any water coming off was clean.”

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Through his conservation practices, he’s also had better weed control, tillage savings, herbicide savings, and overall better soil health – with deeper roots and better water infiltration. He’s also seen a three bushel an acre increase in his soybean yield.

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 “Really, it’s about efficiency," says Jim. "We don’t have the labor or the time. If we can get back to farming in a more natural way (keeping the ground covered and not disturbing the soil) rather than all these expensive inputs, the more profitable we’ll be and the better our land will be. We want to make money, but we also want to leave the land better than we found it."

The Indian Creek Watershed project serves as a model for many other watershed projects, including the new 250,000 acre MRBI project in the Vermillion Headwaters. Indian Creek flows into the Vermillion River, which eventually makes it way to the Gulf of Mexico. The Vermillion River Basin is cited as one of the top five watersheds in Illinois contributing to nitrogen runoff. By modeling their partnership off of Indian Creek, partners hope the new Vermillion Headwaters project will share the same success.

Want to learn more about our Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watershed Initiative? Download our 2016 Progress Report.

Visit your local NRCS office to learn more about voluntary conservation on your farm.