Water quality: Farmers, are you doing best you can?

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This isn’t the first time we’ve written about water quality and agriculture, and it won’t be the last.

The reality is, no matter where you farm, or what you farm, you impact water quality with your production practices and management decisions.

Tiling, fertilizer applications, milkhouse wastewater, muddy winter paddocks of your beef cattle or other livestock, can each affect water quality. So can your cropping system, method of application, type of manure, cover crops, the time of year, soil type, and existing nutrients in the soil.

This is not just about the Chesapeake Bay, or Lake Erie. As Gallia County cattleman Joe Foster told a room of producers at the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association annual meeting Jan. 24: “Everybody in here is impacted greatly. Water issues are real; they are here.”

In fact, on Tuesday, the Ohio Board of Regents announced a series of research projects that will use $2 million to address the state’s water quality problems. The how-to-spend-the-money powwow included not only Ohio State’s ag college, but researchers from the University of Cincinnati, Bowling Green State University, Central State, the University of Toledo, Kent State, and Defiance College and Heidelberg University.

The $2 million is being matched by the institutions. The research will focus on these areas:

  • Lake Erie harmful algal blooms and lake water quality; drinking water testing and detection;
  • Agricultural land use practices, sources of enrichment (fancy phrase for possible contaminants), and engineered systems;
  • Human health and toxicity; and
  • Economics and policy reform

There’s a lot of state and federal money being thrown at this problem, and let’s hope it’s money well spent.

We can’t ignore the signs, or think it doesn’t affect us just because a) we don’t live in northwest Ohio or southeast Pennsylvania; b) we have only a “small farm”; or c) we drink/swim/fish in our local water with no ill effects. Pull the ostrich head out of the sand, folks.

Consider this: Every farm in Pennsylvania, regardless of size, that collects and/or land applies manure — whether it’s two horses, 500 dairy cows, or 10 acres — must now have a written manure management plan.

Manure management plans, and the more comprehensive nutrient management plans, are not required in Ohio, unless you’re in a “distressed watershed” like Grand Lake St. Marys or have a larger permitted livestock farm. Most livestock farmers have one anyway, and if you don’t, I’d strongly encourage you to contact your soil and water conservation district and do so immediately.

(Still, we need to realize that water quality isn’t just about fertilizer application or manure management.)

There will be more water quality legislation coming out of the Ohio General Assembly this session, says Muskingum County farmer Brian Hill, who also happens to be the new chair of the House ag committee.

The big fear is that the legislation will include a statewide ban on spreading manure during the winter, something some insiders say is going to happen.

Hill all but begged his fellow cattlemen at the OCA meeting to get involved.

“You want to protect water quality as well as I do,” Hill said, “but we want to do it right and support agriculture.”

We need to have policy that reflects the diversity of farms, geography and other factors, and doesn’t push farms out of business — and at the same time, we need to protect our natural resources. Hill’s right: We want to do it right.

Look at things that are in your control, now, today. Kevin Elder, head of the livestock permitting program at the Ohio Department of Agriculture — and whom I hereby decree can never retire, because he’s often the lone voice of reason, common sense and agriculture know-how in a room full of lawmakers or environmentalists — said it best at Saturday’s Ohio Cattlemen’s meeting: “I think each of us needs to think, ‘Am I doing the best I can?’”

Are you?

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