Ohio farms become sites for water quality research

There is once again a flare up of toxic algae concern along the Lake Erie shoreline about the challenges that could face the economic staple of the region and the dinking water supply for millions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast that the 2013 western Lake Erie harmful algal bloom will be larger than last year, but considerably less than the record-setting 2011 bloom.

The state’s farmers are inevitably given at least some of the blame in the challenging situation, but agriculture is not sitting idly by and watching the toxic algae problems unfold. Farmers are stepping up to address the challenges ahead.

More than $1 million is being invested by Ohio agricultural organizations, including the Ohio Soybean Council, Ohio Small Grains Marketing Program and the Ohio Corn Marketing Program. This major investment will be used for conducting on-farm, edge-of-field testing through a partnership with Ohio State University, OSU Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service. The USDA is matching the $1 million investment, creating a total of $2 million for the on-farm research.

This particular project is led by Elizabeth Dayton, a soil scientist with OSU, who first came up with this idea as a member of the Ohio Phosphorous Task Force. As a result of her work on the Task Force, she thought a vital initial step was to get an accurate and realistic look at Ohio’s Phosphorous Risk Index, which has been around since 2001, but has never been evaluated or validated at a farm field scale. The idea took three years to fund.

“The sampling equipment alone is $1 million and it costs $500,000 a year to collect the samples,” Dayton said. “Our research matches the field management practices and the soil chemistry to what is coming off of the field. This will allow us to help farmers make management decisions to go along with what they already know about their agronomics.”

The site selection process was very stringent, using agriculture statistics and soil survey information to create a distribution of what exists in agriculture in Ohio. Out of that distribution, researchers could see the predominant practices in Ohio. That allowed them to select fields that reflect those predominant practices in the state and also get the whole spectrum of tillage, cropping, soil types and other parameters to evaluate.

“Ohio is way ahead of the pack as far as this research is concerned,” Dayton said. “It all started with the creation of the Phosphorous Risk Index from the very early stages of research like this. Since then, there has been a revised Nutrient Management Standard from USDA-NRCS that puts a big emphasis on validating state P indices. Luckily, just as that new standard was released, we were putting this project together so we are very much in line with what needs to be accomplished moving forward.”

The help of agricultural commodity groups got the process started, but it wouldn’t have continued if it weren’t for the cooperation of farmers throughout the state. After the funding was in place, the next step was to find the fields that would most closely meet the project’s parameters and then get permission from the producers of those fields to set up shop, which includes a station for surface runoff and a station for tile runoff. After enough water is collected at each station, the samples are taken to the lab and analyzed for phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment makeup.

Terry McClure’s farm in Grover Hill is one of OSU’s research sites. McClure is very comfortable with the process now that the stations are in place, but admits it took some consideration before putting his farm and farming practices under a microscope.

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This is the surface drainage monitor on McClure’s farm.

“You try and think about all of the ramifications of being involved in a project like this,” McClure said. “I worried a bit and then thought to myself that this needs to be done. We don’t know what is causing the issues in Ohio and agriculture needs to be one of the first ones to know. If some of this run-off is coming off of my farm, I need know how and what we can do to change that. That is lost nutrients for farmers and we need to understand it.”

McClure hopes this research will help many farmers in his area and hopes that he can benefit firsthand from having this research station on his farm. He wants to be sure he is applying the nutrient at the right time, doing the best job with the right amount, going through oft-touted 4R thought process at a very local level.

“Let’s face it, we all have a system that we get in to,” McClure said. “Is my system the best? Can I make small adjustments to apply the nutrient that is needed to make better use of it and make sure I keep it on the soil when it belongs?”

Farmers are no strangers to being a part of a solution to fix an environmentally harmful problem. As far back as the 1980s, particulate phosphate was an issue and farmers stepped up with no-till practices and that worked on many different levels. McClure said the recent water quality issues are very similar to that and farmers are starting to pay attention. A solution will be found, just as it was then.

Kirk Merritt, Executive Director of the Ohio Soybean Council, talks about the importance of Ohio’s agriculture community taking part in this research.

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  1. Impressive work here – great to see how the solar, battery, and off-grid technology is being used in such an innovative project!

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