There's $300,000 on the table for Minnesota corn farmers who have ideas to make their operations better for the environment.

The Innovation Grant Program, sponsored by the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, is launching its third year to let farmers test new conservation ideas on their land.

This year, 23 projects received nearly $250,000 in funding for proposals to reduce nitrogen fertilizer loss, improve soil health and protect water quality.

"A lot of these guys have great ideas and they either haven't thought about how to implement them or don't have the resources to implement them," said Paul Meints, Minnesota Corn Growers senior research director. "We're looking for scalable solutions on the agricultural landscape that are also economically viable and allow farmers to stay in business."

Keith Hartmann, who farms in Nicollet and Sibley counties about 85 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, used the funds, as well as a state grant and his own money, to cut the costs of planting cover crops between rows of corn.

He developed a tool that plants the cover crops — annual ryegrass and radish — at the same time he's applying nitrogen fertilizer to the 12-inch corn plants. By planting the cover crops with a machine, Hartmann said he uses one-third of the seed and gets 85 percent of them to sprout, compared to aerial planting that gets only 50 percent emergence.

The cover crops are improving his soil health, Hartmann said, and their roots capture and retain the excess nitrogen instead of allowing it to get washed out of the soil by rain.

In addition to those benefits, he said the cover crops improve water filtration and reduce compaction, so he saves money by only needing to do minimal tilling in the spring.

"My focus has always been return on investment in an actual, real-life farming operation," Hartmann said.

Brian Velde used research money to install a below-surface drip irrigation system on 58 acres of his farmland in Yellow Medicine County.

Instead of using center pivots to spray water across a field, the system pumps it through a network of flexible tubes 14 inches below ground, each of them within 15 inches of corn or soybean plants. No water is lost to evaporation, Velde said, and he can add liquid nitrogen fertilizer at the same time.

"It's like spoon feeding nitrogen," he said. "It feeds the plant just exactly what it can utilize for that day."

Velde said that offers far more control compared to fertilizing a few times with larger amounts during the growing season, especially when heavy rains may wash much of the nitrogen away and into ground or surface water.

"If you overapply, it's a waste of money and bad for the environment," he said.

Velde said he turned on the "fertigation" system on July 4 and ran it until Aug. 2, when rains returned and irrigation was no longer needed.

A field day to show off the system in late August drew 250 farmers from three states, he said.

Velde said the cost of the system — more than $100,000 — gave him sticker shock at first, and he could not have afforded it without combining the innovation grant with some of his own money. He expects to evaluate the performance, yields and costs of the system over a three-year period to determine its feasibility for others.

"You don't want to invest unless you can get a payback, so we expect to quantify the return on investment and share that with interested farmers," he said.

Meints said that next year up to $300,000 will be available for innovation grants, and the deadline to apply is Friday.

More information is available at

Meints said the innovation program is funded by the checkoff system that requires that one penny for every bushel of corn sold in the state be placed in a fund for corn research and promotion.

About $4 million from that fund is spent annually for various programs, he said, including research at the University of Minnesota and with other schools and groups.

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388