Ohio’s Water Quality Problem

Introduction to Ohio’s Water Quality Problem

In 2014, a toxic algal bloom in Lake Erie caused nearly half a million people in the Toledo area to be without tap water for two days. The water crisis generated headlines around the world, drawing attention to an increasingly serious problem with the quality of Ohio’s water, specifically in the Western Lake Erie Basin.

While there are many factors contributing to harmful algal blooms (see sidebar), scientists agree the biggest culprit is excess dissolved phosphorus, which is found in animal manure, many commercial fertilizers and municipal wastewater. Phosphorus is essential to producing food, fuel and fiber but can drain from fields and feed the growth of harmful algal blooms. Before 1972, point-source pollution from factories, for instance, was the main source of the phosphorus load into Lake Erie. A reduction of that pollution resulted in harmful algal blooms not being a problem until recently. Today, experts estimate up to 93% of the phosphorus load comes from nonpoint sources such as agriculture.*

As the state’s largest land user, agriculture has shouldered a majority of the blame. For decades, the agriculture industry has been working to reduce sediment loss from fields, and technology advances have improved the way nutrients are managed. A study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows 99% of cropland acres in the Western Lake Erie Basin are managed with at least one conservation practice. Despite these efforts, an increasing amount of dissolved reactive phosphorus has been entering Lake Erie.

Determined to be proactive, Ohio’s agriculture industry has stepped forward, acknowledging its role in the problem and desire to find workable solutions. With scientists agreeing that a multipronged approach is needed to protect Ohio’s water, Ohio Farm Bureau and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) joined forces to address the issue. Concentrating their efforts on the Western Lake Erie Basin, they came up with the idea of the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms Network in northwestern Ohio. Its ultimate goal is to show how clean water and productive agriculture can coexist.

What are harmful algal blooms?

Harmful algal blooms are mostly caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients found in many sources including animal manure and many commercial fertilizers. Nutrient pollution flowing in Lake Erie and other bodies of water come from farm field runoff, sewer overflows, leaking septic systems and wastewater treatment plant discharges among other sources. The thick slimy blue-green algal blooms have closed Lake Erie beaches, caused illness in humans and animals and negatively impacted the lake’s $11 billion tourism industry. The Ohio Phosphorus Task Force has concluded that agriculture is a major source of phosphorus for Lake Erie with some experts saying agriculture contributes as much as two-thirds of the phosphorus load.

 

*Source: Achieving phosphorus reduction levels in the Lake Erie in the Journal of Great Lakes Research

Reducing Nutrient and Sediment Loss: Part 2

Research being done at the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms and other related sites around the state is helping researchers determine what practices work best for reducing nutrient and sediment loss. Over the last five years, on-farm research has shown that following the 4R approach can help reduce nutrient and sediment loss:

  • Following the 4R approach.
  • Developing a water management plan.
  • Reducing soil erosion.

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship principles provide proven best practices for the application of nutrients (commercial or manure) by using the right source of nutrients at the right rate and right time in the right place below the soil surface.

Fertilizer placement toolbar demonstrated during the Ohio AgriBusiness Association 4R Technology Review Day held on Kellogg Farms.

RIGHT TIME

Knowing when to apply nutrients is critical. Research shows the greatest potential for nutrient loss is when precipitation happens shortly after nutrient application. The time of year is also crucial – losses are lower when nutrients are applied right before planting or over the summer compared to those applied in the fall or winter.

How you can achieve Right Time:
Apply manure while the crop is growing

Manure has typically been applied in the fall after harvest or spring before planting. However, new equipment for manure application is changing this practice in order to better optimize uptake and placement.

How it works:

The in-crop application of manure can potentially replace purchased nitrogen, while also placing nutrients where the growing crop can immediately use them. The application of manure to a growing crop can also extend the manure application season, reducing the pressure to apply manure during the stress of harvest.

“Purchasing a strip-till unit and the necessary equipment cost roughly $250,000. But for an operation our size, more effectively placing fertilizer beneath the soil surface in a band where the crop can more readily access it reduced our fertilizer bill by almost one-third, or $100,000 per year.” – Bill Kellogg

RIGHT PLACE

Research is beginning to show that placing nutrients on the soil surface and leaving them undisturbed can have a negative effect on downstream water quality. By injecting or tilling nutrients into the soil, the dissolved reactive phosphorus concentration can be greatly reduced.

How you can achieve Right Place:
Subsurface placement

A crop can more efficiently take up nutrients when it is placed under the soil surface and in a band. While this type of equipment can be costly, more efficient fertilizer placement can dramatically reduce input costs – to the point that equipment can be paid off in a few years from the savings.

 

This article was featured in the May/June 2021 edition of Our Ohio Magazine

Part 4: The Conservation Practices

Aaron Heilers, project manager of the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms, talks about what science they are learning during this 5-year initiative. Starting with the 4 R’s of nutrient management, learn more about what other recommendations have been found and how to implement them in your operation.

Reducing Nutrient and Sediment Loss: Part 1

Research being done at the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms and other related sites around the state is helping researchers determine what practices work best for reducing nutrient and sediment loss. Over the last five years, on-farm research has shown that following the 4R approach can help reduce nutrient and sediment loss:

The 4R Approach

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship principles provide proven best practices for the application of nutrients (commercial or manure) by using the right source of nutrients at the right rate and right time in the right place below the soil surface.

RIGHT SOURCE

To achieve desired yields most efficiently, a nutrient applicator should select a plant-available nutrient source that provides a balanced supply of essential nutrients while considering both naturally available sources and the characteristics of specific products.

How to achieve the Right Source:
Coordinate nutrient analyses with soil tests

It is important to collect and test soil samples on a consistent basis. Additionally, a nutrient analysis should be compared to the soil test results to ensure the application of the nutrients a field and crop needs.

How it helps:

Coordinating nutrient analyses with soil test results helps reduce the spread of unnecessary nutrients.

Stateler Family Farms utilizes new technology to apply manure at the optimum rate across the field including to a growing corn crop to maximize the benefit of manure nutrients.

RIGHT RATE

Every crop, field and soil has its own unique nutrient needs. When farmers blanket apply nutrients, however, they run the risk of placing too many nutrients in one place and not enough in the other – with the possibility of negative impacts on either the environment or the potential of that crop. Therefore, it’s important to use technology in a way that allows the application of the right rate of nutrients for optimal results.

Solution to achieve Right Rate:
Variable or optimum rate application

Variable rate nutrient application allows crop producers to apply different rates of nutrients in different locations across the field, based on soil tests, with the help of precision technology like computers and GPS.

How it helps:

Variable rate technology for fertilizer has been used by farmers and applicators for many years. It can improve water quality and plant health, as well as optimize fertilizer inputs. Manure, however, has typically been applied at an even rate across the field. New technology for manure application equipment is changing this practice.

 

This article was featured in the March/April 2021 edition of Our Ohio Magazine

Ep. 8: Jessica D’Ambrosio, Water Quality

On this episode of Field Day with Jordan Hoewischer, we talk to Jessica D’Ambrosio, Western Lake Erie Basin agriculture project director for The Nature Conservancy, the largest conservation organization in the world. D’Ambrosio says The Nature Conservancy is always looking for strategies and work that can be applied across a greater landscape, so not just good enough for Ohio or the Western Lake Erie Basin, but also programs, practices and strategies that can be adopted all over to help everyone facing these issues.

Ep. 7: Larry Antosch, Water Quality

Ohio Farm Bureau’s Director of Water Quality and Research Jordan Hoewischer talks with Dr. Larry Antosch, senior director, policy development and environmental policy for Ohio Farm Bureau. Antosch gives an overview of the landscape of water quality in Ohio and sets the stage for future updates on what is going on in terms of the health of Lake Erie, nutrient loading, and laws and regulations in place.

Ep. 4: Robyn Wilson, People & Water

Ohio Farm Bureau’s Director of Water Quality and Research Jordan Hoewischer talks with Dr. Robyn Wilson, associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at Ohio State University. Wilson’s research includes studying decisions based on patterns of human behavior and involves the science of agricultural decision making in the western Lake Erie Basin. Wilson grew up on a farm in northwest Ohio, where the family farm is still in operation.
1 2