Nutrient field studies starting to show results

Terry Cosby
Ohio's state conservationist, Terry Cosby, speaking about water quality concerns at the OFU Convention, in 2016.

COLUMBUS — Scientists are actively pursuing answers to how nutrients are moving and leaving farmers’ fields in the western Lake Erie basin, and the results could be a little surprising.

Mark Williams, a Columbus-based soil drainage researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gave Ohio Farmers Union members an update on research regarding tile drainage and surface runoff. He said phosphorus loss through tiles was considered negligible in the 1980s, because the focus at the time was on nitrogen drainage.

But now that phosphorus is showing up in the water, researchers are trying to figure out why, to help combat the growth of toxic algal blooms.

Related: Ohio Farmers Union talks COOL, TPP and other issues.

The agency has been testing runoff and tile drainage from farmers’ fields, and has found that while no-till farming has “huge benefits” in reducing sediment loss and surface loss of phosphorus, it “may be increasing the dissolved portion that is coming out of the tile.”

Larger volume

He said the concentration of phosphorus in tile drainage is lower than at the surface, but the volume that flows through tile drainage is much higher.

With no-till farming, nutrients tend to infiltrate the soil with the precipitation, but are more likely to follow the cracks and pores in the soil, and infiltrate too fast — ending up in the field tile before separating from the water.

Phosphorus applied to the surface of a no-till field “is being rapidly leached to the tile drain, but when you incorporate the fertilizer with tillage, it greatly reduces the losses,” he said.

Williams did not suggest that farmers abandon no-till, nor that they go back to moldboard plowing. But he said USDA is researching ways of incorporating the fertilizer into the soil, possibly through subsurface injection, so nutrients are more likely to stay in the soil.

More funding

In an afternoon speech, Terry Cosby, Ohio’s state conservationist, said a major federal announcement that carries a significant amount of funding for the basin, will be made in the next couple months.

“We’re going to have money and there’s going to be a lot of dollars that we’re going to be using, to go in and help with the basin,” he said.

Cosby said USDA plans to contract with three farms within the basin, to conduct “demonstration or discovery farms,” in which researchers will research and test “about every (conservation) practice that we offer.”

The research farms will be a place where farmers can go and see how different practices work, and decide which ones would work best on their own farm. He said USDA is also providing more resources to help farmers with nutrient management plans and soil testing.

Much of what is being done is still through a voluntary approach, including farmers who have voluntarily opened up their fields for testing.

Other counties

While a lot of his focus is on the western basin, Cosby is also helping implement a separate program through USDA, known as StrikeForce.

The StrikeForce program helps unite federal resources to fight poverty in rural counties, and was extended to include 11 Ohio counties in January.

Most of Ohio’s counties are located in the Appalachian region, and will now have greater access to food and nutrition assistance, rural development, housing and microloan programs — and also conservation programs.

Although water drainage from those counties typically flows south, into the Ohio River, nutrient issues have also been an issue in those water bodies, making nutrient management a statewide issue.


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  1. Will those conservation practices on the three farms include; using deep rooted native grasses and rotating notill with commodities? Maybe using Switch grass for ethanol production and not rotating.

  2. Maybe they should just quit surface applying their nutrients and bit the bullet and set their planters up to band their nutrients ! We need to be proactive and stop waiting till we have to be reactive ! The day will come when we will be more strictly regulated in what we can do !

  3. I’m a little confused. How is it that P broadcast on the surface gets into a tile line faster/greater amounts than P incorporated into the soil? Once the P becomes soluble is it less likely to stick to soil particles? This soluble P has to travel through, what, 3 ft of soil before reaching the tile line…

    • Because the land isn’t being tilled, large cracks can form, allowing the water (and nutrients) to infiltrate quicker.
      “With no-till farming, nutrients tend to infiltrate the soil with the precipitation, but are more likely to follow the cracks and pores in the soil, and infiltrate too fast — ending up in the field tile before separating from the water.”

  4. I think tiles can be very beneficial, for the environment and the producer, but depending on soil type, tillage practices may have to be modified. 100% no-till may not be every farmer’s best option.


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