Ohio farmers put conservation to test

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Strip tillage tool
Shane Kellogg shows reporters his farm's strip tillage tool, which also applies fertilizer.

FINDLAY, Ohio — When you consider the biggest issues facing farmers the past few years, one that comes up repeatedly is water quality.

Specific events, including the record algal bloom in Lake Erie in 2011 and 2015, and the 2014 Toledo water treatment plant shutdown, made water quality in Ohio a national issue.

But the efforts to correct the issue have been underway much longer, according to Joe Cornely, senior director of communications for Ohio Farm Bureau.

During a tour for media May 11, the Farm Bureau invited reporters to see the three demonstration farms that Farm Bureau and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are using to test and demonstrate conservation practices.

“If you think we’re here because of the Toledo incident, we’re not,” Cornely said. “We’re here because of a history of changes in the expectations for farmers and how they work with the environment.”

Demonstration farms

The farms include three privately owned farms: Stateler Farms, a 600-acre grain farm in Hancock County, with a 7,200-head wean-to-finish swine operation; Kurt Farms, a 470-acre grain farm in Hardin County; and Kellogg Farms, a 5,000-acre grain farm, also in Hardin County.

The three  farms are collectively known as the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms, and are part of a five-year on-farm research project that includes researchers from USDA and Ohio State University.

Aaron Heilers, project manager, said the farms were chosen to ensure a sampling of Ohio agriculture, with results that would be relevant for all of the state. The Farm Bureau gave $1 million toward the project, and the project also received funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The farmers are compensated $20 for each acre enrolled in the program, with the expectation that they will participate in educational and outreach events, and give researchers access the farms as needed. Heilers said there are usually two or more events held at the demonstration farms each month.

Finding solutions

At the Kellogg grain farm, Bill Kellogg, and his son, Shane, have allotted 305 acres for demonstrations that include reduced tillage, grassed waterways, pollinator habitat and subsurface nutrient placement.

Bill Kellogg said the goal is for agriculture to be proactive and find solutions on its own — without being mandated.

“We don’t want other people coming in and telling us what we can and can’t do,” he said. “We’re trying to be proactive and do the right things.”

One of the things the Kelloggs are working on is subsurface fertilizer application.

They recently invested in a $170,000 implement that combines strip tillage with subsurface placement of fertilizer, reducing the number of passes across the field, while placing the nutrients where they’re most needed, and least likely to wash away.

“It’s definitely not cheap, what we’re doing, but it makes sense,” said Shane Kellogg.

Shane said the new applicator has already helped the farm reduce fertilizer use by about a third, and in the long run, the technology should more than pay for itself.

Farmers have been cutting back on total fertilizer use for years, with more efficient equipment and better ways of mapping fields and determining the exact nutrient needs of each part of the field. But extreme weather events the past few years, including heavy rains, have made nutrient management more challenging.

Controlling the weather

Bill Kellogg showed reporters pictures of flooding and washouts that occurred on his farm this spring, following 7.4 inches of rain since late April. He said farmers could solve the water quality issue instantly if they could control the weather.

“There is a magic switch we can turn off: Give us control of the weather and that’s all it would take,” he said.

Although he was partly joking, the evidence backs him up. Last year, when much of the state was under drought conditions, nutrient runoff and algal blooms were significantly reduced, compared to wet years like 2011, when records were set.

Researchers and farmers are trying to find ways to slow the water down, and remove nutrients before the water leaves the field.

Filtering nutrients

At Kurt Farms, owner Chris Kurt has worked with the Nature Conservancy to construct a two-stage ditch, and also phosphorus removal beds, which filter and collect phosphorus before it enters the ditch.

His two-stage ditch was installed in 2014, and works by creating a wider ditch, or “benches” above the narrower ditch, helping to slow the flow of water and expose the water to more vegetation, thereby filtering out nutrients.

phosphorus removal bed
A phosphorus removal bed.

Kurt Farms also filters out nutrients through use of phosphorus removal beds, which are located near the ditch, and require the water to go through a filtration material that includes small stones, and slag material.

And the farm uses filter strips around vulnerable fields, or strips of alfalfa and grass that are used to filter additional nutrients.

The water that leaves the field at Kurt Farms is currently being tested by USDA as part of the edge-of-field study program. Samples are collected every 10 minutes, and analyzed by USDA researcher Kevin King.

Managing manure

At the Stateler Farms, Duane and Anthony Stateler are finding new ways to manage swine manure and mortality. The Statelers have committed 243 of their 600 acres to the demonstration farms, and are pursuing projects that include variable rate manure application, an animal mortality composting facility, edge-of-field monitoring and drainage water management.

One of their biggest projects is upgrading their manure applicator equipment for subsurface application. The Statelers apply about 2.3 million gallons of swine manure a year, on their own farm and on other farms.

When the new technology is installed, they’ll be able to inject manure an inch or two below the surface. With the variable rate technology, the Statelers will be able to apply manure more precisely, according to each field’s needs.

Finding answers

Adam Sharp, executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau, said the demonstration farms have become a way of sharing proven practices, and testing those that need more work.

He said farmers have shown an interest in the demonstrations, but they also want to know how much it cost, the kind of equipment, time it took, the paperwork, and how the practice might work on their own farm.

“They want to see what’s happening in the field, and they also want to understand ‘how did you get there,’” Sharp said.

To learn more about the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms, visit https://blancharddemofarms.org.

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