COLUMBUS, Ohio — The new year brings more courses to become certified in a skill farmers will probably need in 2018: spreading fertilizer.
Fertilizer certification and recertification courses are about to start up again and are offered across the state through Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.
The certification is aimed at teaching ways to spread fertilizer that minimize the risk that the fertilizer runs off the land with rainwater and into nearby waters, especially Lake Erie, which has been plagued by high levels of algal blooms.
Since Sept. 30, 2017, certification has been required for anyone who applies fertilizer on 50 or more acres of land. So far, 18,600 people across the state have gone through the required training.
“I think there’s a large number of environmentally conscious farmers who are looking at a number of ways to improve what they’re doing, in terms of nutrient management,” said Greg LaBarge, an OSU Extension field specialist and a leader of a statewide phosphorus water quality monitoring effort.
More than likely, most people who need the certification have gotten it, LaBarge said.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many of the farmers who are required to get certification have done so. While the USDA tracks how many farms grow corn and soybeans on 50 or more acres of land, some farm owners hire someone else to apply fertilizer on their land, so they would not have to be certified.
Through the certification process, farmers are realizing that what they put on their land can affect bodies of water miles away, said Harold Watters, an OSU Extension agronomy field specialist. Watters helps teach certification and recertification courses.
“Awareness brings change,” he said. “Many have said, ‘Now I need to think about what leaves the farm.’ ”
Farmers sometimes assume the more fertilizer they put on their crops, the higher yields they will get and therefore the higher income they’ll receive, Watters said. The problem is that sometimes a field may not need more nutrients added to it, so the fertilizer is an unnecessary expense, he said. And if the crop does not take up the nutrients, it remains in the soil and could run off the land with rainwater. Ohio’s mostly clay soils can hold onto nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus for years, so fertilizers are not needed every year, Watters said.
“All the nutrients you need may be sitting there ready for the crop and become available through the season and the year,” he said.
One way to prevent applying too much fertilizer is a soil test, which can determine how much, if any, nutrients are needed. However, soil tests can be costly, so it might seem it’s cheaper to buy and apply more fertilizer than it is to test the soil to see if it needs the additional fertilizer, Watters said.
Cost can also be a barrier for farmers in buying new equipment, such as a tillage tool or other machinery that would help them apply and incorporate fertilizer into the ground rather than leave it at the surface.
But as old equipment needs to be replaced, farmers more and more are thinking about buying the upgraded equipment with more precise ways to apply fertilizer, Watters said.
A lot more than fertilizer application determines how extensive the algal blooms become in Lake Erie. Warmer weather leads to warmer water temperatures, which spur the growth of algal blooms. Heavy rainfall means more opportunities for fertilizer running off fields and downstream. Also, the wind directions affect the location of blooms and their toxins.
With so many factors affecting the water quality of Lake Erie, it’s impossible to put a time frame on when changes in farmers’ fertilizer practices will bring down the level of the lake’s algal blooms, LaBarge said.
“It’s complicated trying to understand how improving the water leaving a 50-acre field within the Lake Erie watershed translates to better quality in the lake," he said.
However, LaBarge pointed out that applying fertilizer in ways that keep it on a given field has been shown to lead to better water quality in the lake.