By Kyle Sharp
Ohio State University’s Waterman Agriculture and Natural Resources Laboratory, a working farm just west of OSU campus and nestled in the heart of metro Columbus, is being transformed into a learning laboratory of best management practices for water quality protection and whole farm sustainability.
A $194,324 grant from Ohio EPA and local matching dollars totaling $132,456 is enabling the Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) to demonstrate several progressive projects at Waterman (2433 Carmack Rd.). The grant was announced in April 2010, and projects planned for the first phase of improvements are to be completed by the end of 2011. The projects will serve as application tools for current and future farmers and showcase environmental stewardship for students, faculty and urban residents.
“With this Ohio EPA grant, OSU’s Waterman Agriculture and Natural Resources Laboratory will become the site of comprehensive conservation technologies that will serve as a model for both farmers and students in reducing nonpoint source pollution,” said Reagan Bluel, Waterman farm manager. “Furthermore, we’ll enhance crop and livestock production, while demonstrating to our urban neighbors how conservation management can repair damaged watersheds.”
Bluel works alongside dozens of student employees — and 100 Jersey milk cows — as she oversees the 167-acre dairy farm portion of Waterman’s teaching, outreach and research complex. The site includes horticulture, grade A fluid milk production, crop science, turf grass, forestry, wetlands, floriculture and apiculture.
The evolution of the improvement effort has been “a neat collaborative event,” Bluel said. The Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed, a local watershed group, initiated the conversation with the Franklin SWCD. They saw an opportunity to improve the 22-acre, open pasture behind the Waterman dairy facility.
“It’s like they read my mind,” she said.
The limiting factor was a lack of water to the pasture aside from the Waterman Stream, a tributary to the Olentangy River, that flowed through the area. The EPA grant has solved that problem, Bluel said.
Phase I of the project includes installing livestock exclusion fencing along 6,500 feet of the stream and building new perimeter fence around the pasture, which is currently underway. A well was drilled and waterline installed this spring to provide water to each of the roughly 2-acre paddocks that will be created for rotational grazing.
“I’m looking forward to the daily rotational grazing, because it gives me an excuse to come out here,” said Bluel, as she enjoyed the view from a hillside, across the pasture toward the dairy facility, with the Columbus skyline in the background. “Plus, it’s the right thing to do.”
The grazing groups will depend on the cows’ stage of production and the forage availability, but for now, the plan is to graze bred heifers, young stock and dry cows on the improved pasture.
“The biggest thing is the availability and flexibility this project has generated,” she said. “The options are endless. Franklin Soil and Water has worked closely with us to make sure the plan is real and is what we want. They’ve been overly accommodating.”
In addition, four livestock stream crossings were installed in May to allow cattle improved access to the paddocks; 2 acres of trees, shrubs and grass buffers will be created; and a conservation and manure management plan was developed.
“The livestock exclusion and rotation grazing fencing will allow Ohio State to establish a management intensive or rotational grazing system to better utilize forage and maximize pasture production while providing environmental improvements,” said Kyle Wilson, a natural resource conservationist with Franklin SWCD, and the grant manager. “The crossings will provide stable areas for easy and low impact movement of livestock and equipment. And the livestock watering system will provide a safe and reliable water source that can improve production and provide benefits to the overall health of the herd.”
The advantages to the environment are many. The impacts of livestock grazing riparian areas without exclusion fence include manure and urine deposited directly into or near surface waters where leaching and runoff can transport nutrients and pathogens into the water, Wilson said. Unmanaged grazing may accelerate erosion and sedimentation into surface water, change stream flow, and destroy aquatic habitats. And, improper grazing can reduce the capacity of riparian areas to filter contaminates, shade aquatic habitats and stabilize stream banks.
“We’re doing more with this project than normal for demonstration purposes,” he said. “We built the stream crossings at several different grades, and there are differences in the exclusion fence, with some providing full exclusion from the stream and some allowing flash grazing.”
The paddocks also will have several different types of watering systems, with snap-in sites allowing tanks to be moved where needed.
“I’m real excited about the demonstration portion of this project,” Bluel said. “I’m anxious to get farmers out here to see things and expand the Extension part of the farm. They can use our facility anytime they’d like for producer education.”
The farm’s desire is to carry out the three major goals of a land-grant university — teaching, research and outreach.
“We try to maintain those three pillars while still producing milk for Grade A human consumption,” she said. “It’s that bulk tank that pays the bills. We have to be self-supporting in this budget.”
The dairy isn’t the only portion of the Waterman Laboratory benefiting from the EPA grant. Phase I kicked off in June 2010, when more than 30 members of the Ohio Land Improvement Contractors Association began rehabilitating approximately 450 feet of the South Waterman Stream. The contractors donated their time and expertise to excavate floodplain benches along the stream, create erosion resistant tile outlets, and seed and mulch the benches, side slopes and buffer area. Using a two-stage channel design — a superior alternative to traditional ditching — project partners reconnected the active floodplain to 1,000 feet of the stream.
“We are taking a formerly manipulated drainage channel and providing increased stability and capacity so as to re-establish some of the ecosystem functions of this stream,” Wilson said.
Within the urban headwaters and rural portions of the Olentangy River watershed, land use and development had altered South Waterman Stream’s natural ability to reduce flooding and filter nutrients and other pollutants.
Waterman’s Agricultural Best Management Practices Demonstration and Education Project aims to show farmers how to minimally invade a stream channel in order to improve it, while still continuing agricultural production. Project partners hope the demonstration broadens the public’s understanding of rural land use impacts and the vital role streams play in increasing water quality by controlling inputs and capturing sediment and nutrients.
Partners in the project are: Franklin SWCD; Ohio Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO), a nonpoint source pollution education program of Ohio State University Extension; Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed; Ohio EPA; Ohio Department of Natural Resources; the Franklin County office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service; and Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
For more on this story, see the July issue of Ohio’s Country Journal.