Ohio State Making Strides in Working to Improve Water Quality

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s been one year since the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University launched its Nutrient Stewardship for Cleaner Water Signature Program, and already the initiative is making strides in working to improve water quality in Ohio.

In that time, nearly 6,600 farmers and commercial applicators have gone through fertilizer applicator certification training created and offered by Ohio State University Extension researchers.

And 45 percent of OSU Extension educators have or will have conducted on-farm and field trials throughout 2015 on the best management practices producers can use to reduce runoff of nutrients into Ohio waterways, according to Sam Custer, an OSU Extension educator who leads the program. OSU Extension is CFAES’s outreach arm.

Fertilizer is essential to Ohio crop production when applied using the correct rates, timing and placement, he said. But if nutrient applications are not managed, farm field nitrogen and phosphorus can be lost into water resources and promote harmful algal blooms.

Major water quality problems have occurred in Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Marys and other Ohio water resources in recent years. Within these aquatic ecosystems, harmful organisms in the form of algal blooms have also been present.

The Nutrient Stewardship for Cleaner Water initiative is designed to improve water quality by helping growers lessen the use of nitrogen and phosphorus and keep more of it on the field, while increasing crop yields and boosting farm profits.

Already, the initiative has resulted in 82 percent of OSU Extension clientele using soil testing, Custer said. And 49 percent are following tri-state fertilizer recommendations for agronomic and other crops and are using organic and inorganic nutrient sources for optimal crop production.

“We’ve had a strong impact with producers in Ohio,” he said. “We know agriculture isn’t solely responsible for the phosphorus issue, but we also know agriculture does contribute.

“Farmers we know want to be part of the solution, with 80 percent agreeing that farm field phosphorus is an issue to our water resources. And 50 percent agreed to change their nutrient management practices as a result of the educational meetings we’ve offered them on the issue.”

Other accomplishments achieved during the program’s first year include:

  • Over 130,000 persons had the opportunity to visit and discuss nutrient management at demonstration plots at the 2014 Farm Science Review.
  • Grants have been secured to hire staff to assist in developing voluntary nutrient management plans that include crop recommendations and site environmental risk assessments developed by producers.
  • Fields with high nutrient loss risk are being identified to study cost-effective best management practices to reduce nutrient loss.

“We’re also gearing up to do more educational pieces on nutrient management through offering field days, workshops, lectures and hands-on classroom experience,” Custer said. “We will also use OSU Extension and U.S. Department of Agriculture edge-of-field research statewide to determine the best management practices to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from leaving the field.

“And we’ve seen producers across Ohio working to adapt their management styles to keep more nutrients on the field instead of in the state’s water.”

The program is done in conjunction with the college’s Field to Faucet water quality program announced in September 2014 and launched in March. Its goal is to ensure safe drinking water while maintaining an economically productive agricultural sector.

Field to Faucet was conceived by Bruce McPheron, Ohio State’s vice president for agricultural administration and dean for the college, which put $1 million toward the effort after harmful algal blooms caused dangerous microcystin levels in Lake Erie and shut down Toledo’s water supply for two days in August 2014.

Several agribusinesses and agricultural organizations have been integral partners in the college’s water quality efforts, including:

  • The Ohio Soybean Council. The council is the largest donor to the college during the current campaign with over $10 million contributed, with a significant focus on water quality research and educational programs. Since 2012, the Ohio Soybean Council has contributed $1.34 million to water quality research and educational programs.
  • The Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. Over the course of the past year, the Ohio Corn Marketing Program and Small Grains Marketing Program have supported close to $1 million in water quality research projects at the college.
  • Becks Hybrids has committed just over $1 million to support research related to water quality as well as to support the Farm Science Review. Indiana-based Becks Hybrids is the largest family-owned retail seed company in the United States.
  • Ohio Farm Bureau has been a major contributor to facilitating partnerships and contributing funds for water quality research and education, with approximately $200,000 in the last year.
Tracy Turner
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Sam Custer