Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Research project aims to understand phosphorous

Columbus — Lake Erie and Grand Lake St. Marys have an algae problem.

That much is not up for debate.

What can be argued over, though, is the role farmers play in the formation of harmful algae blooms in the lake. In other words, how much is dissolved phosphorous contributing to the problem?

Several state farming organizations want to know precisely that answer and have begun research to find it.

Earlier this year, the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, the Ohio Soybean Council, and Ohio State University partnered to conduct edge-of-field phosphorus testing to determine the best ways to keep nutrients on the field and out of waterways. The $2 million project, which is funded by farmer dollars matched with a federal grant, is expected to run for three years.

“The real reason that we felt we had to do this research is that there’s some new things going on,” said Tadd Nicholson, executive director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Grower’s Association. “When it comes to phosphorous … in agriculture, the common belief is that phosphorous will bind to the soil and won’t move. But, nitrogen is always what we really worried about and managed more intensively.”

Overall, Nicholson said, farmers have reduced the amount of phosphorus being used because it’s expensive to purchase.

“We have learned, though, that (phosphorous) doesn’t always stay put,” he said. “The fact that phosphorous can get into a dissolved state in agriculture is very new.”

The issue of dissolved phosphorous is a phenomena that has just arisen over the past five years, Nicholson said.

“And, many farmers still might not have a firm grasp of it,” he said. “This issue of how dissolved phosphorous moves through the soil is a complete mystery. And, there’s nobody who has any science on it … Farmers are very science-based and willing to make changes. We’ve shown that throughout history.”

The research is aimed at providing answers, Nicholson said.

“It’s all about dissolved phosphorous, how it moves through the soil, figuring out which production practices are most appropriate for different soil types, different slopes, and different crop rotations,” said Nicholson. “There’s a hundred different variables in agriculture. This research is very comprehensive and will be very informative for farmers in the state.”

Brent Hostetler, a Madison County grain farmer, said he indeed just learned more about dissolved phosphorous about four years ago.

“Like Tadd said, my dad taught me that phosphorous does not move once you put it on the soil,” Hostetler said. “The good news is that myself and others are improving all the time.  And, one thing that’s allowed us to improve is the use of technology … We’re using the fertilizer more efficiently, so that’s a good thing.”

Hostetler said that although dissolved phosphorous is not yet wholly understood, he’s taken steps on his farm to reduce the nutrient loading such as using no-till methods and cover crops.

“If fertilizer is leaving my field, obviously I don’t want that to happen,” Hostetler said. “I go boating and fishing and I use the same water that everyone else does. We don’t want this problem any more than anyone else.

“Fertilizer is expensive,” he said. “I want it to stay where I put it.”

There’s been talk that the state might force farmers in distressed watershed areas to utilize different practices on their fields.

Hostetler said he’s already using most of those methods that would be prescribed, but he added: “Let’s understand the problem before the state comes in and tries to tell me how to fix it,” he said. “I think that’s the key. Let’s see the science and if there’s something I can do, I’ll adapt.”

The research could go a long way in making these things happen on the ground, Nicholson said.

“Farmers are very environmentally sensitive,” he said. “They take care of a lot of Ohio’s land mass. They take that job very seriously and they have a strong desire to make sure our environment is good.”

Better land application practices for fertilizer just make economic sense as well, Nicholson said.

“There’s also, in addition to the environmental incentive, there’s also an economic incentive,” he said. “You don’t have to regulate farmers into making changes to keep fertilizer put. There’s lots of great reasons they would want to do that without having regulations from the state.”

The research project is slated for three years, but there’s a much larger picture in play, Nicholson said.

“I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to assume that this work is going to stop after three years,” of the study, he said. “What we’re trying to find out is how do we maximize our production in an environmentally friendly way … That balance is our search. That’s not a three-year ordeal, it’s a lifetime ordeal … As long as we’re working in agriculture, we’ll be working on these types of issues.”

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