Ohio State University Researchers Working with Farmers to Protect Ohio Water Quality, Lessen Algal Blooms


COLUMBUS, Ohio – With harmful algal bloom forecast to increase this summer in western Lake Erie, experts with Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) continue to work with farmers statewide to offer steps agriculture can take to continue to lessen the potential for runoff from farmlands. 

Farmers are concerned about nutrient loss, believing that it is likely to have a negative impact on water quality and profit potential, said Greg LaBarge, an Ohio State University Extension field specialist and one of the leaders of the OSU Agronomic Crops Team. The team also includes scientists from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

OSU Extension and OARDC are the outreach and research arms, respectively, of the college. 

Phosphorus fertilizer is essential to Ohio crop production for food, fuel and fiber, LaBarge said. 

“We are continuing to look for best management practices farmers can implement to reduce farm field phosphorus lost into water resources, which increases the potential for harmful algal blooms,” he said. 

Algal blooms have been an issue in Lake Erie since the 1960s. The blooms, which are harmful to wildlife and humans, occur when phosphorus levels are high within the lake. These levels decreased during the 1980s and 1990s in part due to soil-conserving best management practices implemented by farmers, but within the last decade water quality monitoring has revealed an increase in dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration today (7/2) forecast that the 2013 western Lake Erie harmful algal bloom will be larger than last year but considerably less than the record-setting 2011 bloom.

While current causes of the DRP increase are unidentified, experts believe increased rain events of more than one inch, fertilizer placement and legacy soil test levels play a role, LaBarge said.

In fact, a strong majority of row crop farmers living within the Maumee River watershed of northwest Ohio believe that although agricultural practices including row crop and livestock operations contribute to water quality issues, the available best management practices are effective in reducing the problem, according to a 2013 survey conducted by Ohio State researchers.

The survey found that while farmers feel that they have a limited amount of control over nutrient loss on their farms and the impacts that those nutrients have on water quality, most are willing to take at least one new action on their farm to reduce nutrient loss. Farmers see it as beneficial and valuable, even though they don’t all agree about the necessity or fairness of being asked to do so, the survey said.

Ohio State specialists and other agricultural experts have made recommendations to protect water without reducing agricultural productivity. Many farmers have already taken steps to address the part of the water quality problem caused by field runoff.

“For example, some 4,400 farmers attended more than 160 nutrient and water quality training sessions offered by OSU Extension,” LaBarge said. “And 82 percent of farmers are using soil testing methods recommended by OSU Extension to avoid applying excessive amounts of fertilizer.”

Other best management practices for agricultural nutrients from Ohio State include:

  • Those meant to improve soil health, such as conservation tillage, cover cropping and controlled traffic.
  • Those meant to increase nutrient management precision, such as soil testing, grid sampling and comprehensive nutrient management planning.
  • Those meant to improve the filtration of surface and subsurface runoff, such as filter strips, grass waterways and biofilters.
  • Those meant to improve manure management, such as following Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) guidelines.

Adopting a variety of these practices can serve to curtail nutrient loss from agro-ecosystems, thereby decreasing the overall impact of agriculture on water quality, said Robyn Wilson, an assistant professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, which is also a part of CFAES.

“The survey suggests that a majority of farmers may be willing to employ additional management practices,” said Wilson, who co-authored the study. “The majority are a willing audience, particularly if you can focus your message on the personal benefits to their farms in terms of avoiding profit loss and improving soil health and local water quality.

“If you want to get them to go that extra mile, the communication needs to focus on the benefits of taking action and the negative consequences of not making additional changes.”

In addition to helping devise these management practices, Ohio State is also part of an alliance of farm organizations, environmental advocates, academia, businesses and other interested parties that has begun a multi-step initiative to improve water quality over both the short and long terms.

A goal of the group is to continue to prevent phosphorus from escaping from farm fields, organizers said.  

CFAES, OSU Extension and OARDC are crucial partners as farmers work to meet the public’s expectations, said John C. “Jack” Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

“We have to balance protecting water and feeding everyone’s family,” he said. “Ohio State will play a big role in helping farmers do both.”

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Greg LaBarge

Robyn S. Wilson