A recent two day workshop concluded at Heidelberg University’s National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) lab in Tiffin, Ohio. The event included an explanation of recent developments to the Nutrient Tracking Tool (NTT) that has been used in many watersheds across the country by USDA-NRCS. NTT has never been calibrated for the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB) until recently. The 30+ attendees present over the two days of the workshop included growers that are involved in furnishing field data, Soil and Water Conservation District staff and agronomists from several ag retailer locations.  

The NTT is an online tool that estimates nutrient and sediment runoff from agricultural fields. NTT also estimates crop yields and can be used by farmers and ag retailers to improve soil health and reduce nutrient and sediment exports from farms. Proprietary data from individual fields are entered and alternative management practices are explored in the NTT by the farmers themselves. The changes in nutrient and sediment loss reductions as well as the changes in crop yields are compared and analyzed among different scenarios.

The session began with an introduction to the project by Rem Confesor, Jr., PhD,  research scientist at Heidelberg’s NCWQR lab.  Ali Saleh, PhD., Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research, Tarleton State University, gave a brief history of the tool and went into a full demonstration.  The afternoon session allowed attendees the opportunity to use the tool in front of the entire group.  It was apparent that by the end of the workshop, participants felt more comfortable using the computer-based tool and offered valuable input to the NTT development team to improve its usefulness to WLEB stakeholders.  Scott Chalfin, Agronomy Sales Consultant, CCA, TSP at Sunrise Cooperative in Fremont, Ohio states “this is a good tool for managing nutrients under several scenarios.  I’ll be anxious to see what modifications are made due to input from workshop attendees.” Confesor commented, “The workshop was quite successful! The participants’ comments and suggestions were highly valuable in improving the NTT and it’s use here in northwest Ohio. With the NTT, we can estimate the pollutants coming off the farmer’s individual field and most importantly, the farm’s crop yield”.

The NTT has been in the calibration process in the WLEB for nearly a year. The purpose of the workshop was to give a “hands-on” opportunity for intended users and further identify areas that can be improved or added for simplification and accuracy. The tool has the ability to add local field operations that may be unique to the WLEB. A portion of the calibration process comes from the Agricultural Policy Environmental eXtender (APEX) model. APEX uses site-specific soil and field slope data, daily temperatures and precipitation, and agricultural management operations for any crop rotation to simulate nutrient and sediment losses, crop yields, and carbon sequestration. NTT allows users to compare the agronomic and environmental impact of different management practices, and can thereby help improve the cost-effectiveness of conservation investments. In addition, 28 grower volunteers in the Sandusky River Watershed have allowed use of sites on their farms for data collection. Without these sites, the project wouldn’t have the same accuracy and these growers are to be commended for their help.

The National Center for Water Quality Research (NCWQR) at Heidelberg University, in collaboration with the Sandusky River Watershed Coalition (SRWC), the United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs for Crawford, Erie, Sandusky, Seneca, and Wyandot), Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Institute of North America, and Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research (TIAER) at Tarleton State University in Texas has been calibrating and verifying the NTT to the Western Lake Erie Basin.

Early in 2016 the updated version of the NTT for the Western Lake Erie Basin is expected to be ready. A large scale rollout of the tool will be announced at that time.  “I am very optimistic that this tool will aid the producers and other stakeholders in making informed and sustainable decisions about agricultural practices that will help decrease phosphorus and sediment exports to Lake Erie", stated Confesor.