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Better Farming May Be Coming? - New computer can protect groundwater from pesticide and fertilizer runoff

(© PROGRESSIVE FARMER magazine, September 2003, reprinted with permission.)

Purdue University agricultural engineer Bernie Engel is developing computer models to help farmers prevent pesticide and nutrient runoff. Photo: Tom Campbell

Coming soon ... an online program that determines acceptable pesticide application rates on a field to keep chemicals and nutrients out of surface and groundwater. It also may keep farmers out of hot water with government regulators.

Purdue University ag-engineer Bernie Engel's efforts in computer modeling are creating the nation's first smart environmental regulations for groundwater contamination.

For the past seven years, Engel has analyzed thousands of digital images and examined numerous databases to determine groundwater vulnerability to pesticide runoff in Indiana.

Historically, site-specific variables are not considered when developing regulations on how much pesticide can be used. But many factors (such as soil type, weather and tillage practices) influence the movement of pesticides and nutrients on a field and soil profile. This creates different levels of risk for potential groundwater contamination.

In Indiana alone, there are 90 major types of soil, each with its own characteristics of pesticide movement. Yet Engel's model indicates that 75% of detectable pesticides in groundwater come from 25% of farmland.

It's these potential groundwater hot spots that create the greatest concern. "In effect we want to move away from blanket recommendations for herbicides and instead use the database to pinpoint specific rates to specific fields and areas," he explains.

Once the Web site is finished, farmers will input information regarding their operation and farming practices. The model will crunch this data with other information, like 30-year weather history, to come up with recommendations for application rates for the pesticides intended for use.

- Gregg Hillyer

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