The word innovative is quick to be used in modern agriculture, but the expression is on full display through a unique program taking place in northwest Ohio’s Blanchard River Watershed, and rightfully so. Active farms and industry-leading producers are taking on the task of demonstrating new conservation techniques there in hopes of finding practices that water quality practices for future use throughout the watershed and statewide.
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service have teamed up with area farmers to undertake the aptly named Demonstration Farms. Several other federal, state, and local partners are helping out with funding the five-year, $1 million effort.
Aaron Heilers was recently named project manager for the demonstration farms.
“I was contracted with NRCS and Farm Bureau when they formed that partnership about a year ago. They needed somebody to manage that project and be the liaison between the farmers and the agencies,” Heilers said. “Now we’re moving into the implementation of the practices working with outside companies to put in some of the more untried things out there that look like they can have promising results with nutrient loss. My role is to oversee everything involved with the demonstration farms.”
The Blanchard River watershed is located in the northwest portion of the state in parts of Putnam, Hancock, Seneca, Wyandot, Hardin, and Allen counties. The demonstration farms are in Hancock and Hardin counties, where practices on Kellogg Farms in Forest, Kurt Farm in Dunkirk and Stateler Farm in McComb are being put to the test.
Each farm offers its own challenges and requires different solutions tailored to the land’s specific needs.
“Subsurface placement and nutrients is going to be a big one at the Kellogg Farm. They’re a larger scale operation. They’ve got larger equipment and are more technology driven, so they’ve got a big subsurface placement strip-till unit,” Heilers said.
Kellogg Farm will also see work on potential fertilizer savings using different methods, timing, and placements of cover crops. Other potential practices will include controlled traffic, conservation tillage, and proper storage facilities for on-site fertilizer and fuel tanks. An abandoned water well that is located within the crop field also will be removed, according to the Ohio Farm Bureau.
The influence of livestock on the land is also being examined in the project. The Stateler Farm includes 208 acres in a corn, soybean, and wheat rotation plus a swine wean-to-finish operation.
“They’re looking at soil test levels of phosphorous and then making sure that nutrients are at the agronomic rates they need to be applied at and keeping soil test levels in check where they need to be,” Heilers said.
Farm Bureau said the site will focus on managing nutrients associated with modern animal agriculture. Other practices to be considered there are intensive soil testing, drainage water management, tile water treatment systems, paired edge of field testing, alternative cropping rotations, and variable rate nutrient placement. An animal mortality composting facility is also being proposed.
The Kurt Farm was recently host to the Hardin County “Agricultural conservation, protecting water: Keeping soil and nutrients” field day. Agriculturalists were able to see first hand the kind of unique practices being put to the test at the demonstration farms.
“We’re focusing a lot on edge of field practices there,” Heilers said. “The two-stage ditch, the phosphorous removal bed, looking at a woodchip bioreactor — all trying to capture what’s leaving in the subsurface drainage. And then we’re also going to be doing the drainage water management structures at that farm as well.”
Kevin King of the USDA Agricultural Research Service is one of the leading researchers working with the demonstration farms. He detailed exactly what research is being done north of Kenton at the Kurt Farm.
“We really talked about the edge of field practices — what are farmers actually doing, what’s the role of agriculture in this whole nutrient movement issue that we have in the state,” King said.
He was one of the many speakers at the August field day held at the farm.
“Farmers are volunteering their lands for us to come out and put instrumentation in to quantify both the phosphorous and the nitrogen that’s moving across both the surface and the tile drainage,” King said. “There are practices that are directionally correct right now, we know they’re things that we can do — such as the 4R’s, drainage water management, cover crops, reduced or no-till — but what we need to do is quantify the impacts of those and that’s what the Ag Research Service is doing.”
King said the research is looking to improve on some already good management practices that we’ve seen implemented statewide.
“The preliminary data that we’re collecting so far is exciting from an agricultural standpoint. If we look at the recommendations of a 40% reduction in phosphorus, and so we say 60% is allowed. That 60%, if we divide that across all the acres, is roughly a quarter of a pound an acre,” he said. “We are finding that 60% of the producers we work with are already meeting that level. That’s exciting.
“Agriculture by in large is doing a good job. We’ve got another 35% that are on the fringes. There are practices that we can do that we have at our disposal right now that will get us to that 35%. And yes we have some issues out there. They’ve started to scale back on that but it’s going to take time to recover those. I think the message is agriculture wants to be a part of the solution. Agriculture will do
what they’re told to do — it just needs to be based on sound science. The edge of field research that we’re conducting will point us in that direction.”
Two-stage ditching systems also show promise. King noted that once the water leaves the edge of the field, there are still nutrients associated with it. The ditches themselves can help with cycling those nutrients.
“One of the methods that we think we have at our disposal is this idea of a two-stage ditch,” King said. “When this landscape was settled, we channelized ditches to move that water off of site as fast as possible. What we’re understanding now is there are things we can do to slow that water down and maybe put certain vegetation on the benches of those ditches that actually will pull nutrients out,” King said. “There’s a study out of Notre Dame with Jennifer Tank where they’ve actually shown the impact of cover crops and the two-stage ditch concept in pulling nutrients out of the system. Not only are we looking at the edge of field, but we also know that once it leaves the edge of field, we have to be able to do things downstream. The practices such as the two-stage ditches are one of the examples of how we can implement something that can pull nutrients that do escape the edge of the field.”
The techniques are in-depth, the man-hours are significant, and the price tag is big, but Heilers said the end game is worth it.
“Every farm is different all across Ohio,” Heilers said. “Trying to find that right combination of in-field, edge-of-field, and in-stream practices that every farmer can implement on their operation that’s going to have the biggest impact on water quality is our ultimate goal.”