Keeping nutrients and water on farm fields


COLUMBUS — A soil scientist with Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is in the midst of a three-year, $2 million project to keep more nutrients and water on farm fields as part of an effort to improve the state’s water quality.

Researcher Elizabeth Dayton’s On-Field Ohio project is designed to offer growers more options to reduce agricultural runoff in Ohio waters by revising the current U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service Ohio Phosphorus (P) Risk Index to better predict the risk of phosphorus moving off farm fields.

Her goal is to make the P index, which is now used in all nutrient management plans, more accurate by increasing management options for farmers to reduce phosphorus runoff; and to create a Web-based tool so farmers can easily calculate and manage their phosphorus runoff.


Because the Ohio P Risk Index is used by farmers statewide in developing nutrient management plans for both manure and commercial fertilizer application, it is important the index be as accurate an indicator as possible, Dayton said.

“We know a lot, but we don’t know how good is good, so taking a more comprehensive look at how each management practice works on a specific field under real-world conditions will allow us to better quantify how well those practices can work for growers statewide,” she said.

“The feedback we have received from the farming community is that they are ready, willing and eager to be a part of the solution.”

The project is funded through a $1 million U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Innovation Grant and $1 million in matching donations from Ohio agriculture groups.


The project involves setting up water sampling equipment on 32 sites across Ohio farms that grow wheat, corn and soybeans to sample surface and subsurface runoff to determine how much phosphorus is leaving the field, and how different soils and management practices affect the amount of phosphorus in runoff.

Phosphorus available to plants during a growing season, former management practices and soil physical properties are also being evaluated on each study site, Dayton said.

Already, the equipment installed on 24 sites has collected more than 2,000 water samples for testing since October, she said.

“To get to the root of the problem, you have to get to the source,” Dayton said. “You can see that best at the edge of the field because that is where the offsite transport of nutrients and sediment occurs.”

Or in other words, where runoff meets the waterways that lead to Ohio’s rivers and lakes, including the Scioto River, Lake Erie and Grand Lake St. Marys.


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 OSU Extension field specialist and one of the leaders of Ohio State’s Agronomic Crops Team.

The team also includes scientists from the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

While phosphorus fertilizer is essential to Ohio crop production for food, fuel and fiber, 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, according to a 2013 survey conducted by Ohio State researchers.

But, the survey found, most farmers are willing to take at least one new action on their farm to reduce nutrient loss.

For Terry McClure, that’s meant opening his farm to participate in the On-Field Ohio project. His 3,800-acre corn, soybean and wheat farm in Paulding County has several of the sampling equipment installed and tracking runoff from his farm.


The fifth generation farmer said he wanted to be a part of the project because “if you might be a part of the problem, then you should want to be part of the solution.”

“Since the Dust Bowl, farmers have been looking for solutions anytime something happens that impacts their farms and their operations,” McClure said. “Even though farmers are using less and less phosphorus on their farms, the issue of water quality is ongoing.

“So while we don’t know what is causing the issue in Ohio, agriculture needs to be one of the first to know and to better understand what we can do to change it. If we are losing nutrients from our fields then we need to make changes so our farms can continue to benefit.”


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!


  1. …water..yepper!

    essential to all life.

    T. Boone Pickens, Mega-Billionaire, has been buying up water rights left, center, and right instead of oil. He says the value of fresh water will surpass that of oil in the near future.

  2. For over 26 years I have contended from all I have read that water will be as Pickens states, more valuable than oil.Feedom to Farm must be a real farmer who recognizes this and works to preserve the water for all Americans. Too bad CAFOS do not embrace this thought and avoid destroying Lake Erie with the waste from their industrial farms.


  3. At the Ohio Manure Review last Tuesday. One presentation was on wood chip pits in tile line outlets to control nitrogen. Like a swamp.
    There was talk about using iron filings to capture phosphorus. Does anyone have additional information on inorganic phosphorus.

  4. This seems like a great study – it will be interesting to see how much nutrient run-off really does end up in fresh water sources.

    As mentioned in the article phosphorus is necessary for crop production. Often times dilute liquid manure is used as a source of phosphorus and other nutrients. If manure was first treated before it was applied to land there is the potential for less nutrient run-off. Livestock Water Recycling ( has a technology which is able to concentrate and recover valuable nutrients and clean water from manure. If this technology gains widespread adoption it will reduce some of the excess nutrients reaching water sources. I think it is necessary to research and develop methods to preserve water wherever possible – especially since agriculture is a major user of water!

    Does anyone know when or where the results of this study will be published?


We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.