New tool available to help farmers explore alternative ways to comply with buffer law

Published 10:00 pm Monday, September 11, 2017

To help farmers find the best strategy to comply with the Minnesota Buffer Law, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources has implemented a tool that will provide farmers with alternative practices specific to their land that can be used instead of the prescribed vegetative buffer.

Passed last legislative session, the buffer law requires farmers to install a 16.5-foot buffer on public ditches and 50-foot buffer on public waters that run along their farmland. However, alternative practices approved by BWSR can be used to reduce mandatory buffer widths.

The Alternatives to Buffers Management Tool will help farmers choose which practices work best for them and reduces the loss of farmland. Funded by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association and designed by the University of Minnesota, the decision support tool will be available at every Soil & Water Conservation District office at no cost to the farmer. Farmers will also have the ability to access the tool online at

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“Although the buffer law allows for the use of alternative practices, farmers were in the dark on what practices made them compliant,” MCGA President Harold Wolle said. “This tool will help farmers decide the best strategy for their farm and decrease the loss of productive farmland while protecting water quality.”

The process starts with farmers answering basic questions about the characteristics of their land, including soil type, slope and existing management practices. From there, the tool provides farmers with their site-specific alternative practices, which would be used in addition to required minimum buffers of five feet on public ditches and 16.5 feet on public waters. Approved alternative practices like using cover crops, conservation tillage, contour stripcropping and more would take the place of the buffer law’s minimum 16.5-foot buffer on public ditches and 50-foot buffer on public waters.

University of Minnesota Researchers began developing the tool at the beginning of the year. The process started by evaluating the effectiveness of 16.5- and 50-feet buffers in preventing phosphorous and sediment runoff. The researchers used that baseline to then determine what combination of alternative practices matched that effectiveness on a variety of land and soil types.

Farmers will be asked to file the alternative practices they are implementing with their local SWCD, and will be required to perpetually use those alternative practices in order to remain compliant.