There are many things that farmers can control with regard to their role in improving Ohio’s water quality, but there is one thing they can’t: the weather. And, it just so happens that this factor beyond human control is also the most significant factor in water quality. A big, unexpected rain can undo the best of on-farm intentions for water quality stewardship.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture recently introduced a couple of new tools to help address this perennially challenging problem.
“ODA firmly believes science and technology must be at the forefront of all water quality issues and these new and innovative tools are impactful steps that will merge the ideas of precision farming and precision conservation,” said David T. Daniels, Ohio Department of Agriculture director. “The agricultural community continues to take the necessary steps to maintain agricultural productivity, while protecting our natural resources and reducing nutrient runoff to improve water quality in Lake Erie and surrounding waterways.”
The Ohio Applicator Forecast is a new online tool designed to help nutrient applicators identify times when the potential nutrient loss from a fertilizer or manure application is low. The Ohio Agricultural Stewardship Verification Program is a pilot certification for farmers implementing best management practices on their farms.
Ohio Applicator Forecast
The Ohio Applicator Forecast is a feature on the Ohio Department of Agriculture website that takes data from the National Weather Service and predicts potential for runoff to occur in a given area in Ohio. The forecast considers snow accumulation and melt, soil moisture content and forecast precipitation and temperatures to help in the decision making process when applying nutrients.
“At the National Weather Service we model the river basin hydrology across the entire Ohio River Basin and Great Lakes drainages on a daily basis. We track how the water moves from the atmosphere into the ground. That information can be used to help alert farmers to the potential for runoff events that would produce nutrient runoff into streams and rivers. We’re able to take our analysis of rainfall that has fallen and will be falling into the future,” said Brian Astifan, the development and operations hydrologist with the National Weather Service Ohio River Forecast Center in Wilmington. “This tool will let farmers know when conditions are possible for nutrient runoff based on soil conditions, how wet or dry it is and also how much rainfall is coming that might impact runoff. We are taking information we are already generating and using it in a different application for the state of Ohio to generate an advisory level. Is there a low potential of runoff or a high potential of runoff? Farmers can use that information to decide when they might or might not apply nutrients.”
A similar tool has already been in use in Wisconsin and has been expanding to other states.
“The pilot program in Wisconsin has grown to include most of the Great Lakes states. We are able to produce this information on a fairly high-resolution basis. There will always be some uncertainty with the weather but the state of weather science has come a long way in the last 20 years,” Astifan said. “We are much more confident in our rainfall predictions than we were even five or 10 years ago. It is not an exact science, but the uncertainty is taken into account so you can leverage that information to make better decisions.”
The announcement about the kickoff for the Ohio Applicator Forecast was held at Drewes Farms in Custar. Tyler Drewes thinks the tool will be useful for nutrient application decisions on their farm in the Western Lake Erie Basin Watershed.
“I think we’ll use it all the time. We have multiple times when we apply fertilizer throughout the year. We deal with a couple of dairies and receive 20 million gallons of dairy manure and apply it after wheat harvest and corn silage harvest and after fall harvest,” Drewes said. “The website will allow us to check things out and let us know if it’s a good time to apply the manure from the dairy and our commercial fertilizer to make sure what we are putting down will connect with the soil and stay there.”
Because the tool covers every corner of the state it can be useful for a broad range of decisions for large and small farms throughout Ohio, Director Daniels said.
“The weather tool allows a producer — whether they are planting 1,000 acres of corn or two tomato plants — to see soil conditions and the chances of runoff. It looks out seven days to let them know the best opportunity to apply nutrients,” he said. “Let’s say it shows a tenth of an inch of rain today. It’ll show ground saturation points so if you’re looking at a tenth of an inch there is probably not much of a chance on runoff on a dry field. Now three or four days down the road if we are looking at a tenth, a half inch or an inch, it will show you that the further down that week you go the more chance there is for runoff. It lets you know what you can do today, it also lets you plan four or five days out for what might be a potential problem. It lets you know what the saturation is on two different depth levels too and you can zoom right down in on your field or your garden and see the potential for runoff. They can also use it as a planting tool.”
And, specifically in the Western Lake Erie Basin Watershed, the Applicator Forecast is one more tool to help farmers stay in compliance with the state regulations in place.
“Last year with the prohibition of application of nutrients on frozen and snow covered ground in this watershed it only makes sense that we announce this weather app here in the watershed,” Daniels said. “We are not only asking producers to do this but we are also providing some tools to help them manage through that.”
Ohio Agricultural Stewardship Verification Program
The Ohio Agricultural Stewardship Verification Program certifies farmers in the targeted watersheds of Henry and Wood counties who apply and meet criteria developed by ODA’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation. Criteria for the certification include developed nutrient management plans, accurate soil tests and documented best management practices, among others. The program will begin as a pilot with an intention to expand the program to all of Ohio.
“We are excited to be one of the first farms in Ohio to prove our commitment to improving water quality through this verification program,” Drewes said. “Farming as many acres as we do in the Western Lake Erie Basin region, we know we play a very important role in the long-term improvement of the lake’s water quality. We want to be part of the solution and this program will help farmers toward that goal.”
The Verification Program reinforces the need to do the right things on farms and also showcases the positive actions being taken within agriculture to address water quality challenges.
“This is an excellent tool to show people outside of agriculture what is being done. We want to set the bar for those best producers going over and above and this is one method to show industry and the general population what agriculture is doing,” said Kirk Hinds, with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. “The stewardship verification pilot program is just for Henry and Wood Counties with intent to go statewide. We just want to get it fine tuned before moving forward in the whole state.”
The ODA will continue to reach out to farmers and applicators in the coming months to make them aware of the new tools that were announced in mid-May, Daniels said.
“Farmers can voluntarily take part in this certification program that verifies that they are using best management practices and doing what they are supposed to be doing with the 4Rs. This shows that you are doing things that are conservation minded and environmentally sensitive,” Daniels said. “We are rolling this out where the focal point of the water quality discussions have been in the state and that is the Western Basin of Lake Erie. We are happy to see the verification program take shape.”
Those interested in applying for the Agricultural Stewardship Verification Program can visit their local Soil and Water Conservation District office to find out how to become involved.