Green alert

ADA – The multi-faceted and complex challenge of reducing the movement of dissolved phosphorus from farm fields to Lake Erie was a main topic of conversation Wednesday during the Conservation Tillage Conference.

Researchers updated farmers, crop advisers and other agriculture professionals on the latest information farmers can use to reduce the portion of Lake Erie’s harmful algal bloom problem caused by agriculture.

The daylong program was part of the overall program at Ohio Northern University, Ada.

“There are no easy answers” was the overall message of the 10 speakers covering various aspects of the nutrient runoff topic.

One of the overriding topics of discussion was the length of time needed to put measures in place. Scientific research is underway to find the methods, but it will take time to determine the results – probably more than a decade.

But at the same time, the group talked about the need to show people outside of agriculture that farmers are taking measures now to help alleviate the problem.

Jay Martin, an agricultural engineer at Ohio State University, said the water problem in Toledo brought the issue to national attention.

He outlined and explained the overall problem, but noted it’s a global problem and isn’t limited to Ohio.

“This isn’t just a Great Lakes problem,” he said. “This isn’t a problem were trying to address alone. This is something happening across the globe.”

Martin said a new study at Ohio State called Field to Faucet is joining researchers from many colleges and agencies in hopes of creating a sustainable system.

Climate change and larger rainfall events play a large part in nutrient runoff, he said.

“We have a chance to counteract these changes we might see in the future by implementing more BMPs,” he said, refering to best management practices.

Andy Ward, also an agricultural engineer at Ohio State, said a systematic approach using a combination of best management practices is the most likely solution.

A step farmers can take now is to plan on using the right amount of nutrients for each field, and each area within a field.

“It’s a system. We’ve got to think of it as a system,” he said. “Farmers are used to that.

“The best bang for the buck is probably going to solve the problem in the field,” he added. “But it’s a slow process. We’re not going to get a quick solution.”

He said some of the keys will be using cover crops, applying fertilizer in the spring instead of in fall or winter and using controlled drainage structures.

Rem Confesor, lead scientist of the Conservation Innovation Grant project funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, explained how an online nutrient tracking tool can be used to help farmers estimate the impact of various best management practices on their fields.

Confesor said he is working with a team to calibrate the tracking tool using a Conservation Innovation Grant. The study started last fall and runs through fall 2016.

After the project is complete, farmers can use the model to input various scenarios regarding money, labor and land variations and get a realistic idea of the results based on economic and environmental factors.

Part of the calibration research is being conducted by Kevin King with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Columbus, who provided an overview of his edge-of-field studies at 19 pairs of fields throughout Ohio.

King said research shows the dissolved reactive phosphorus problem started around 1995, but nobody is sure why.

“When we look for treatment, there is no silver bullet,” he said. “We don’t understand why this happened in the first place. We’re trying to solve something we really don’t understand.”

However, King said, fall rain events have been getting heavier for the last 10 years.

That’s important because 65 percent of phosphorus is discharged into streams during rainfalls of at least 2 inches. And he said 85-90 percent of the discharge from fields is through the drainage tile.

“We cannot deny tile is playing a significant role in delivering phosphorus,” he said.

Also related to rain, King said, new research on the chemistry of rainfall shows a reduction in “acid rain” may be causing an increase in dissolved phosphorus. The sulphur in acid rain in the past helped prevent phosphorus runoff.

“As we moved from more acid to more base, phosphorus becomes more soluble,” King said. “We get about four times greater soluble phosphorus using recent chemistry compared to 1990s chemistry.”

King said such variables as organic versus inorganic fertilizer play a part, as well as the timing of fertilizer application.

“We really need to start to think about and account for the nutrients in the manure,” he said. “If we apply too much, it’s a waste of money.

“If we apply phosphorus in the fall and winter, that’s when we have the potential for the largest losses,” he said.

He suggested farmers put wheat back into the crop rotation and apply fertilizer in August after harvest.

King said use of controlled drainage structures are showing reduced dissolved reactive phosphorus discharge of 8-34 percent.

“It has no effect on concentrations, but it kept the dissolved reactive phosphorus from leaving the site,” he said.

Other forms of disrupting the natural flow of water also are being studied, as well as the use of gypsum and cover crops.

“I think cover crops are directionally correct,” he said. “I just think we need to look at this holistically because there are a lot of different variables.”

In the meantime, the speakers said during a panel discussion that a public education system is needed so people understand the research being done and progress being made.

“This problems didn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to be solved overnight,” King said. “It will take at least a decade to see major changes.”

Kevin Elder of the Ohio Department of Agriculture suggested soil testing is a basic tool farmers should be using, possibly a more intense type of testing than usually is performed.

“You should consider more intense testing, grid testing or soil mapping,” he said. “The quality of soil testing needs to improve so we’re putting nutrients only where they’re needed.”

In some cases where nutrients are concentrated, he said a one-time deep plowing with a moldboard plow might be needed to mix the nutrients evenly in the soil.

“You may need to start over again, reset the clock,” he said.

In most cases, however, he said, placing nutrients below the surface near the seed would be beneficial.

He also said the use of water control structures and cover crops are needed as well as filter strips and buffers, increasing organic matter and even placing wetlands in some locations.

Larry Antosch, director of environmental research for Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said legislation for regulation has arrived and innovative farmers will find a way to implement the needed changes in a cost-effective way.

He said legislative issues change frequently and the focus right now is on Lake Erie, but he looks for the issues to be enlarged to take in the rest of the country.

“The manure did hit the fan after the Toledo problems,” he said. “But it’s not not just a Lake Erie concern. We have to think about the other half of Ohio and the Gulf of Mexico.”

He commended legislators on listening to scientists and farm groups on the topic.

“It would have been easy to see a knee-jerk reaction on legislation,” he said. “For the most part, we didn’t see that happen.”

He said legislators are being educated on the complex challenges, the costs involved, the unanswered questions and the weather-related factors that nobody can control.

Antosch said it’s important to note that legislation enacted in Ohio could create precedents for the rest of the country. And pending legislation in Iowa, Washington, Vermont and Maryland could affect legislation in Ohio.

For example, in August 2014, Ohio became the first state to require fertilizer applicators to be licensed.

Pending bills in the Ohio House and Senate would restrict fertilizer and manure application during times when there is a high risk of the material leaving the field and getting into the water system.

He encouraged farmers to get certified.

“By April 22, we would like to have everybody in the Lake Erie basin certified that should be certified,” he said. “We want people to know agriculture is full engaged and involved in this issue and we’re getting everyone we can certified in the process.”

He recommended farmers follow good stewardship practices and keep good records.

“Remember, what’s good for the Lake Eire basin might be extended to all of Ohio,” he said.

“We can do it. I don’t know how much time it will take to do it, but we will.”