A conversation with…
Kevin Elder, who recently retired as chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture Division of Livestock Environmental Permitting
OCJ: Could you provide a brief overview of your career and how it led to your most recent role at the Ohio Department of Agriculture Division of Livestock Environmental Permitting?
Kevin: I grew up on a small diversified crop and livestock farm, growing corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, beef cows and finishing calves, swine farrowing to finish and chickens. After graduating from Fairfield Union, I attended the Ohio State University graduating from the College of Agriculture in 1975 with a dual Major in Animal Science and Agricultural Education.
I was hired by the Fairfield Soil and Water Conservation District in 1976 as a District Technician. One of my first jobs was conducting final as-built plans for a recently constructed Manure Holding Pond on a local dairy. I received training and practical experience in surveying, designing, laying out, constructing and inspecting a wide range of conservation practices including grass waterways, tile, water and sediment control basins, erosion control structures, ponds and livestock manure facilities.
I also did conservation planning with landowners helping them better understand their soil and natural resources and select conservation practices that fit their goals for their property. I assisted farmers in beginning to convert to no-till planting, providing technical assistance on soil fertility, integrated pest management for weed and insect control.
I scheduled the use of the SWCD’s three no-till planters and no-till drill helping the farmers become familiar with their use.
In 1986, I had the opportunity to move to Columbus and work for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Soil and Water Conservation in the Agricultural Pollution Abatement Program. We provided training and technical assistance to the state’s 88 SWCDs for improving water quality and addressing pollution complaints. We also administered up to $2 million of state cost sharing each year.
In the late 80s the Agricultural Pollution Abatement Advisory Committee was brought together to look at revising the laws and rules first created in 1979. The Advisory Committee made recommendations regarding Manure Nutrient Management, providing additional staff and training to local SWCDs and additional cost sharing for farms to implement better management of manure being stored. Working with OSU fertility specialists, the OSU REAL soil testing lab and private soil testing labs, we changed the phosphorus soil testing procedures to actually list test level instead of only giving a maximum value of 45 ppm+. We developed, along with USDA-NRCS and OSU, the first nutrient management and waste utilization standards that had both nitrogen and phosphorous limitations.
Then in 1994, I worked with researchers, commodity groups, OSU OARDC, OSU Extension, ODA’s State Vet Dr. Glauer and OEPA’s Division of Hazardous and Infectious Waste to develop legislation, standards and training to allow mortality composting in Ohio.
OCJ: In terms of Ohio’s nutrient management, what do you see as the biggest challenges in the future?
Kevin: Probably the biggest challenge is getting a better understanding of what the best practices are to minimize nutrient loss in the wide diversity of soils, topography, crops, and farming practices that vary tremendously from farm to farm and year to year. There is a tendency to want to mandate and regulate “the answer” that everyone must follow. Storms and rainfall patterns make a big difference in nutrient losses. Practices that disturb the soil with tillage can increase nutrient losses through excessive erosion. Putting nutrients on the surface of the soil without tillage can result in losses of dissolved nutrients moving with water. Poor soil health, losses of organic matter, and compaction can result in more rainfall moving off the fields either as surface runoff or through macro pores to tile, increasing dissolved nutrient losses.
OCJ: What improvements have you seen with managing manure on Ohio’s farms in your career?
Kevin: When I was in college in Animal Science, there were classes on feeding and nutrition, breeding, housing, but very little on manure management. Manure was something to get rid of as quickly and easily as possible. The only regulatory standard was a nitrogen limitation in regards to water quality. Manure nutrients were not considered of value for crop production. I can remember being told that you could never sell manure. That has changed tremendously. Today there is a much better understanding of nutrient value of manure, not only N, P and K, but micronutrients, organic matter, biological activity and liming value. I have seen manure auctioned off before it is produced. I have seen it sold and moved several counties away and applied by manure brokers.
Soil testing and manure testing and application according to crop needs is now a standard. Prohibitions of applying nutrients on frozen and/or snow covered or saturated soils is now a standard for large permitted farms and manure applied by Certified Livestock Managers.
OCJ: What are your thoughts on the recently proposed “impaired” designation for Lake
Kevin: First of all, if you looked at the area of the lake that was considered impaired by Michigan and compared it to the near shore area that Ohio had already declared impaired, that area was already larger than Michigan’s. The declaration of the rest of the Ohio boundary will probably not have much additional impact. The majority of the legal authority of that declaration is over point sources of pollution. Even though the designation may not really change things, agriculture does need to continue work to reduce/minimize their nutrient losses and water quality impacts.
OCJ: What is your take on the some of the manure-related fill kills in Ohio and how do you think the State should respond to similar issues moving forward?
Kevin: I was extremely disappointed in the way those incidents were portrayed by certain individuals and the media. A lot of conclusions were jumped to without allowing the complete investigation to be completed. In the end, the Certified Livestock Managers applied manure following all the best management practices. In one case, application of poultry manure was being done on wheat stubble with the farmer prepared to incorporate and plant a cover crop. The rain forecast was for less than 50% chance of less than a half inch of rainfall. The applicator began to apply around 8 in the morning, at 11 he stopped when it began to rain. They ended up with 2.4 inches of rainfall in just that small area. That caused the fish kill due to the ammonia concentrations. In another case the dairy farmer hired a CLM to apply to an alfalfa field after taking a cutting of hay off. The application met all the BMPs. A rainfall event occurred three days later that caused a fish kill.
All fish kills are unfortunate and should be minimized and prevented whenever possible, but sometimes bad things happen. Some individuals want a 100% guarantee that there will never be water quality impacts — that does not reflect reality. The Clean Water Act has an Agricultural Stormwater Exemption that when it first came out exempted any storm caused discharge. Later additional requirements were added that BMPs had to be followed. More recently additional requirements added to require looking at weather forecasts and not apply if there were more than 50% chance of raining more than a half-inch in next 24 hours. Even when those additional requirements are followed and storms clearly caused the impairment and fish kills, the farmers/applicators are still being penalized.
OCJ: What advice do you have for farmers in Ohio regarding manure and nutrient management?
Kevin: Manure and nutrient management must fit into each individual’s system and be a priority, not an afterthought. There are many different ways that can work. It has to make sense to get it done right. I go back to a real live example when I was working at the Fairfield SWCD. A hog farmer was installing a 1.4 million-gallon storage facility, he had more than enough crop land, but some of it was a couple miles away. All his land was in a corn and soybean rotation and he was going to apply it with one 3,400-gallon manure tank and tractor. We tried to explain the limitations he was going to have — not enough time to get it applied. It took him finding out the hard way to cause a change in plans.
I urge all farmers to support the edge of field research that we need for many more years. I have my ideas of what is best, but that is all they are until we have real data on a lot of different farming operations, soils, crops, tillage, drainage situations. Some of the initial data are showing that we need to get as much of any nutrient applied to be in contact with the soil below the surface to reduce rainwater contact and reduce nutrient losses. Make sure that any nutrient applied is truly needed.
OCJ: What was the most rewarding aspect of your career?
Kevin: Working with a wide variety of farmers, citizens, and agencies to solve problems — I don’t think I ever was limited by others if there was a need to make things better or a different way of doing things.
OCJ: What was the most significant challenge of your career?
Kevin: By far, it was the implementation of SB 141, which created the Division of Livestock Environmental Permitting at ODA. It was also challenging moving from a position I enjoyed at the Division of Soil and Water Conservation into a regulatory division with only a pen to start with, having to hire staff, equip them, to put a Concentrated Livestock Environmental Permitting Advisory Committee in place to prepare comprehensive rules for the first time, and to have those 6 chapters and over 240 rules go through the legislative rule review.
OCJ: How do we balance regulation with voluntary measures to achieve desired outcomes for everyone?
Kevin: We need to remember that laws and regulations are easy to make, but unless clear, consistent and enforceable, they will not be effective. Right now we have so many different regulations that it is very difficult for anyone to be in full compliance. There is one set of regulations for large permitted farms, another for the Western basin of
Lake Erie, another for small and medium farms, a different one for Grand Lake St. Mary’s, and still different ones for the rest of Ohio. Also, some regulations that come through legislature or Governor’s Executive orders may not match with the current best science. The other problem with more regulations is the ability to actually enforce them. More regulations without the ability to actually follow up with effective enforcement are counterproductive to everyone.
OCJ: What are you looking most looking forward to doing in retirement? Does it involve manure?
Kevin: Right now I am waiting for the ground to dry up and warm up. I am looking forward to helping by brother day in and day out on the farm, not just the evenings and weekends and on my “vacation days.”
I am also working on my house, doing things needing done a long time ago. And after losing Kathleen, my wife of 41 years a couple years ago, I will be getting remarried to my fiancé Betty Colbert in June.
And finally, I have had several inquiries to remain active in manure and nutrient management from individuals and others. Then there’s always the manure from the beef cattle on the farm.