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Study shows most farmers are in compliance with fertilizer recommendations in Western Lake Erie region

As farmers prepare for their 2018 crop, newly released research shows that a large majority of those whose fields drain into western Lake Erie are adhering to ag experts’ guidelines for fertilizer rates and application practices. The study concludes, however, that the recommendations themselves should be re-examined to better protect western Lake Erie from pollution resulting from agricultural runoff.

The findings are presented in a special issue of the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation published by the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS).

“Our surveys found that up to 80% of farmers are following the most up-to-date guidelines available regarding fertilizer application and general stewardship practices,” said Doug Smith, USDA soil scientist, who co-authored an article in the Journal detailing the research. “But even though the vast majority of growers are applying nutrients at or below recommended levels, the reality is that roughly 70% of the phosphorous entering Lake Erie is from streams and rivers, where agriculture is often the dominant land use. So we have to acknowledge that the agronomic data and information on which farmers are basing their fertilizer application decisions may not be giving enough consideration to the importance of minimizing nutrient runoff into western Lake Erie.”

Smith points out that fertilizer recommendations currently provided to farmers in the western Lake Erie region were developed by researchers 40 or more years ago.

“Since then, there have been drastic changes in factors like tillage methods, crop varieties and nutrient formulations that alter phosphorous cycling in soil and water,” Smith said. “The science that drives fertilization practices needs to catch up. The scientific community and the agricultural industry must ask whether current practices are in step with the goal of achieving optimum balance between economic outcomes and preserving environmental quality.”

Public concern over nonpoint source agricultural pollution of western Lake Erie, however, continues.

“The researchers believe that reconsideration of existing nutrient recommendations and wider adoption by farmers of the most effective agronomic practices can bring about a sustainable agricultural system in the western Lake Erie region,” said Clare Lindahl, SWCS CEO. “The role of SWCS is to provide the forum where researchers, extension specialists, crop advisors and growers can engage in the collaboration needed to maintain farm productivity while preserving environmental resources.”

The study is available at: http://www.jswconline.org/content/73/1/48.full.pdf+html.

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