By Chris Coulon, NRCS Ohio Public Affairs Specialist
When imagining Ohio, visions of buckeyes or The Ohio State University’s football stadium most likely precede visions of The Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, or hypoxia. In fact, what happens on the land and water of Ohio directly impacts all three. Over 70 percent of Ohio drains into the Ohio River, which meets up with the Mississippi River, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf of Mexico experiences hypoxia every year. It’s all connected.
Cropland and pasture land account for 65 percent of the Ohio’s land use in the Mississippi River drainage area. Rain or snow washing off fields or seeping into a tile drains begins a 1,500 mile journey to the Gulf. Fertilizer applied incorrectly on these fields increases the risk of fertilizer washing away with the water and soil particles. This fertilizer contains nitrogen and phosphorus, nutrients plants need to grow.
In the Gulf, a type of small aquatic plant, algae, thrives on the nutrients flushed in from Mississippi River. Algae eventually die and decompose, consuming oxygen during this process. Large amounts of decomposing algae proportionally decrease the level of oxygen in the water, creating the condition called hypoxia, areas referred to as ‘dead zones.’
Ohio farmer, Bill Knapke, understands the relationship between Ohio, the Gulf of Mexico, and ‘dead zones’. On his farm in Mercer County, Knapke and his family raise more than 300,000 chicks every 15 weeks in 4 high-rise barns. He also grows corn and soybeans. His poultry generate about 1,200 tons of manure a year, which Knapke uses as fertilizer on his crop fields. He follows a comprehensive nutrient management plan to make sure he applies the manure to his crop fields correctly. Since he has more manure than he can use, he sells the rest.
The farming community recognizes Knapke as a leader who adopts innovations before others. He has a strong conservation ethic coupled with education and professional experience as an environmental manager. These characteristics may explain why Knapke decided to try edge-of-field water quality monitoring on his own farm. Together with researchers he’ll determine which type of conservation applied to the land keeps nutrients out of the water most effectively.
In 2011, Knapke purchased surface and sub-surface water quality monitoring stations through an Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). A Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) agreement between NRCS, the Mercer County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) for water quality monitoring in the Mississippi River Basin provides for the data collection and analysis of the water sampled from Knapke’s monitoring stations.
ARS researcher Kevin King explains that he’s using a paired field design in one drainage area on the Knapke’s farm. Data collected after it rains or snows through one full crop rotation established the baseline condition of water leaving the field. With this information, Knapke and King can change the conditions in one field to see if water quality changes. Typical changes include conservation practices designed to reduce nutrient run-off, such as planting a cover crop instead of leaving the soil bare between growing seasons. Conservation professionals call changing conservation practices to find the best way of protecting natural resources ‘adaptive management.’ The other field in the pair remains unchanged for experimental control.
Results from the first year’s data collection revealed something surprising to Knapke. He found that more phosphorus ran off from surface drainage than from tile drainage. This year he’s working with conservationists on ways to modify his tillage to place manure deeper in the soil without causing soil erosion. He hopes this change will reduce phosphorus run-off and is excited to see his monitoring data after the next crop cycle.
Kevin King explains the importance of Knapke’s monitoring project. He says, “The data we’re collecting from edge-of-field monitoring is paramount to understanding the transport mechanisms and pathways, as well as identifying the most effective conservation practices to combat non-point source pollution from agriculture.” Reducing non-point source pollution in Mercer and surrounding counties is so critical that in 2011 the State of Ohio passed regulations mandating nutrient management in those counties. Knapke’s stewardship ethic served him well in this case; he already had the mandated comprehensive nutrient management plan.
Bill Knapke may experience the same benefit with his monitoring project if the government responds to the public outcry for non-point source regulation of all farms. By voluntarily applying conservation and voluntarily monitoring the water, financial assistance from voluntary conservation programs, like EQIP, help defray the cost of the conservation applied by Knapke. One day, conservation programs fall away amidst competing government priorities. One day, regulations may mandate conservation. On that day, farmers will bear the full burden of regulatory compliance, a cost ultimately passed on to consumers. We will pay more for the eggs, beef, and milk produced on regulated farms. Is that the future we want?