Since last fall, 6,586 growers and producers responsible for farming some 1 million acres of Buckeye State farmland have gone through fertilizer applicator certification training offered by researchers from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University as part of the college’s efforts to continue to improve Ohio water quality.

Taught by Ohio State University Extension’s Agriculture and Natural Resources program staff, the training is designed to help farmers increase crop yields using less fertilizer more efficiently, thus reducing the potential for phosphorus runoff into the state’s watersheds.

The ultimate goal of the training is to keep nutrient runoff from fertilizers, especially phosphorus, out of Ohio’s waters, said Greg LaBarge, an OSU Extension field specialist and co-leader of Ohio State’s Agronomic Crops Team. OSU Extension is the college’s outreach arm.

The training, which meets the educational needs of Ohio’s new agricultural fertilization law, is just one aspect of the work Ohio State is doing to continue to improve water quality. The new law requires farmers who apply fertilizer to more than 50 acres to become certified.

The training supplements the college’s Field to Faucet water quality program announced in September 2014 and launched in March designed to ensure safe drinking water while maintaining an economically productive agricultural sector. The program already has five initial projects up and running, said Jay Martin, an ecological engineer in Ohio State’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, who was chosen to lead Field to Faucet.

Field to Faucet projects include:

  • An app is being developed that will allow farmers to record nutrient application rates and methods. Future plans include developing further apps geared toward nutrient stewardship.
  • A project will develop a geospatial data warehouse with controlled access that will allow producers and researchers to secure and share publicly available data. It is likely the project will later serve as a model approach for a national program.
  • Researchers are studying how best to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from manure and from anaerobic digester discharge before these materials are applied to fields. This effort would especially benefit the watershed around Grand Lake St. Marys in western Ohio, where there are a large number of livestock farms.
  • A project will use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to provide real-time concentrations of microcystin in Lake Erie’s waters. Microcystin is a toxin made by certain harmful algal blooms.
  • A sensor will be developed to detect real-time concentrations of microcystin in Lake Erie’s waters.

Field to Faucet also involves researchers from multiple Ohio State colleges and other regional universities, Martin said, with three additional research projects supported by Field to Faucet now underway:

  • A Regional Conservation Partnership Program with a U.S. Department of Agriculture award of $17.5 million is creating a tri-state cost-share program to help protect water quality in the western basin of Lake Erie. Ohio, Michigan and Indiana farmers in designated watersheds can get assistance in instituting a variety of best management practices that will keep nutrients on fields and improve water quality.
  • Working with the Ohio Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one project will create a weather risk management tool that combines weather forecasting with Ohio-specific land use data to warn farmers of impending storms to lessen runoff risks before nutrient applications.
  • A Best Management Practices Handbook is being developed that will allow farmers to determine the best farming practices to use based on their specific crops, fields, topography and region, among other considerations, to reduce nutrients coming off fields into Ohio watersheds.

“We need to find ways to protect downstream ecosystem and water quality, while also preserving food production across the landscape,” Martin said. “We will strive to accelerate the applications of research.

“It’s great to write theses and dissertations and publish journal articles, but we need to link with Extension and farmers to get the information in the hands of people who can use it to improve things.”

Field to Faucet was conceived and funded by Bruce McPheron, Ohio State’s vice president for agricultural administration and dean of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, which invested $1 million toward the effort after dangerous microcystin levels in Lake Erie shut down Toledo’s water supply for two days in August 2014.