New Grant Focuses on Nutrient Management, Cleaner Lake Erie Water

Keeping farm fertilizers from reaching water sources is critical to improving water quality downstream. (Thinkstock photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Extension specialists with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University will use more than $1 million in new funding to help farmers develop nutrient management plans and to assist fertilizer service providers gain certification in a national nutrient stewardship program.

The initiative — funded by $531,000 in grant money and $531,000 in local cash matches from various agencies and industry groups — targets Ohio’s western Lake Erie watershed, home to rich agricultural land dedicated to field crop production and an important source of nitrogen and phosphorus that can affect the lake’s water quality downstream, said Greg LaBarge, Ohio State University Extension field specialist for agronomic systems and co-leader of Ohio State’s Agronomic Crops Team.

OSU Extension is the statewide outreach arm of the college.

“The overall goal of the project is to continue to refine our nutrient management strategies to ensure better crop production with less residual nutrient exposed to loss,” LaBarge said. “Every field has different risks. Separating high-risk fields so they can be targeted with more layers of appropriate best management practices is essential to seeing fewer nutrients in water leaving fields.”

The first part of the project is the result of a cooperative effort funded by the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, the Ohio Soybean Council, the Ohio Small Grain Marketing Program, the Ohio Corn Marketing Program and OSU Extension, with additional support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

It involves working with growers to develop nutrient management plans for their farms, including the Phosphorus Index calculation, which helps them identify fields with a high potential risk of phosphorus movement to nearby waters downstream. Too much phosphorus can affect water quality in the basin, fueling the growth of harmful algal blooms.

To accomplish this work, the grant will fund four program coordinator positions with OSU Extension that will be based in county offices within the Maumee River watershed. These program coordinators will carry out four basic functions:

  • Assist farmers in developing nutrient management plans that meet Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) cost-share program eligibility. These plans can help identify a variety of conservation land-use concerns that could be further addressed by a certified farm conservation plan, LaBarge said.
  • Help growers interested in developing voluntary nutrient management plans that meet statutory requirements for an approvable plan through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Soil and Water Conservation District program. A voluntary nutrient management plan is an important step for farmers to defend themselves from lawsuits as stipulated in Ohio’s new nutrient management laws.
  • Provide technical support to private nutrient management plan development providers (including certified crop advisers, certified professional agronomists and technical service providers) who are developing plans that meet NRCS cost-share eligibility on behalf of farmers.
  • With the written approval of a plan owner, utilize data gathered from the management plans (such as field distance from water, soil types and soil test values) to better understand the phosphorus index and other water quality risk tools, in order to develop more user-friendly means for growers and farm advisers to monitor fertilizer use.

“Work from these four activities will support identification of critical resource concerns for nutrient management to be addressed as part of an NRCS cost-share program or individual farmer investment in nutrient reduction strategies,” LaBarge said. “The data will support ongoing research efforts to better identify environments where practices will be cost effective in reducing nutrient movement to achieve water quality improvement goals.”

The second part of the project involves working with agricultural nutrient service providers who deliver nutrient recommendation, nutrient application services or both to farmers so they can achieve certification in the voluntary 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program — which encourages farmers to use the right fertilizer source, at the right rate, at the right time, with the right placement.

The goal of this effort is to increase participation in the 4R program among agricultural retailers, independent crop consultants and others who provide nutrient recommendation and application service to farmers in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, LaBarge said.

This project is part of the college’s ongoing efforts to improve Ohio’s water quality by educating growers on ways to use less fertilizer and keep more of it on the fields, while increasing crop yields and boosting farm profits. Under the comprehensive Field to Faucet program, Ohio State is working to ensure safe drinking water while maintaining an economically productive agricultural sector.


CFAES News Team
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Greg LaBarge