Mike Libben and his father Bob farm 650 acres in Ottawa County. As with many modern farmers, Mike also works at another job, as District Program Administrator of the Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District (OSWCD). As with most of the county’s farmers, Mike grew up farming. Here, where even the largest farm of 6000 acres is farmed by father and son, most farmers continue to strive to be stewards of the land, passing that land down from generation to generation. Here, where farms are within a few miles of the lake, that legacy includes doing what is right for Lake Erie.
The algae bloom of 2011 brought attention to the role played by fertilizer run-off as a contributor to Lake Erie’s troubles. Just as fertilizer brings green to the fields, it can also bring unwanted growth and green to the Lake. Mike Libben is working with area farmers to ensure that they have the tools to implement practices that benefit their farms and the lake. “No farmer is intentionally spreading too much fertilizer,” said Libben. “It is too expensive.”
According to Tadd Nicholson, Executive Director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers, the average farmer spends $330 per acre on fertilizer. In a May phone conference, Nicholson emphasized that Ohio farmers have drastically reduced the use of phosphorus, widely thought to be a major contributor to the algae bloom, “There has been a 50% increase in production with 34% less use of phosphorus. The old thinking was that phosphorus stays put on the land.” Now, that does not necessarily seem to be the case. Dissolved phosphorus is thought to be the issue.
Soybeans coming up through last year’s corn stubble
In the same phone conference, Kirk Merritt, Executive Director of the Ohio Soybean Council, said that so far the research doesn’t show how the phosphorus is getting off the land and into the water. The Soybean Council has partnered with the Corn and Wheat Growers, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Ohio State University and other agricultural organizations to finance a $2 million study. According to Merritt, the research goals are to 1) identify the best practices that will keep the phosphorus on the land, which will vary from soil to soil and farm to farm and 2) to make the information accessible to the farmer by creating a web-based tool.
Yet, in Ohio, where, according to Merritt, “97 % of farms are family owned”, there is much being done proactively to further reduce fertilizer run-off. Paul Herringshaw, who farms 1500 acres in Wood County, is taking advantage of the Healthy Lake Erie Initiative that was sponsored by State Senator Randy Gardner. With a grant from that initiative, Herringshaw has installed a system that closes drainage tiles in winter months and opens them in the spring, thus reducing run-off and keeping fertilizer on the fields. Though that funding is not yet available in Ottawa County, farmers can install the system on their own.
The 4 Rs
On his own farms and as resource for Ottawa County farmers, Mike Libben is implementing and educating the 4 Rs of Nutrient Stewardship--the Right Source of fertilizer at the Right Rate at the Right Time and in the Right Place.
In order to determine how best to implement the 4 Rs, farmers now have sophisticated resources. Through their co-ops, such as Luckey Farmers Co-op and Helena Chemical Company, and through more extensive soil sampling (6 locations on 18 acres), a Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan (CNMP) is developed. The CNMP uses GPS mapping and computerized variable rate application that puts fertilizer where it is needed and avoids putting fertilizer such as phosphorus where it is not needed.
Filter strips help keep fertilizer on the fields and out of the lake
One way to hold nutrients and soil on the land and simultaneously put nutrients back into the soil is by the use of cover crops. In September, while the soybeans in one of his fields were maturing, Libben employed an airplane fly over and seed cereal rye in the field. After the soybeans were harvested, the rye held and nurtured the soil over the winter. In the spring, a burn-off herbicide was applied, killing off the rye. “Benefits we have seen are that the cover crop helps dry out the field, makes the soil structure better, we probably use less fertilizer, it adds organic matter, and it is easy and not expensive,” said Libben.
Another important tool being used and promoted by Libben and the OSWCD is the use of filter strips. By leaving a strip a few feet wide along drainage ditches the runoff of soil and nutrients is slowed. Since that area of the field is often low-producing, and since the USDA has a cost-share program, the use of filter strip is becoming commonplace. Libben finds that the biggest problem in getting farmers to enroll in the filter strip program is that there are many absentee landowners in the county.
According to Libben, no-till farming was “a huge first step (to better manage soil and prevent erosion). Now, after 20 years, we are realizing that too many nutrients on the top may be occurring.” Therefore, it may be advisable in some situations to till every few years.
Larry Jensen, Oak Harbor farmer, planting with no-till
The next program that Libben will be implementing on his farms is the installation of a bio-reactor in the drainage ditches. Drainage tiles will flow into woodchips, filtering out chemicals that might otherwise be flowing into Lake Erie. Dr. Larry Brown of OSU is working with Libben on the bio-reactor program.
One message that came through, from Libben, from Nicholson, from Herringshaw, from Merritt, is that every acre of every farm and every farmer in every location has its own unique situation for maximizing production and minimizing environmental impact.
As Nicholson stated, “There is no silver bullet. Figuring it out is not rocket science. It is much more complicated than rocket science.”
For more information or assistance, contact OSCWD at www.ottawaswcd.com or 419-898-1595 or follow on facebook at Ottawa Soil and Water Conservation District.
In this ongoing series on the Healing of Lake Erie, we will next explore managing the home yard and garden in an environmentally responsible way. Meanwhile, many of the practices employed by farmers also apply to the homeowner. Information is available from OSWCD.