COLUMBUS — In a little over a year, Ohio State University Extension has trained more than 10,000 Ohio farmers on best practices to apply fertilizer for optimum crop yield, reduce the risk of nutrient runoff and improve water quality throughout the state. And more training opportunities are scheduled to reach even more farmers.
Known as Fertilizer Applicator Certification Training (FACT), this program allows farmers and commercial fertilizer applicators to meet the educational requirements of Ohio’s new agricultural fertilization law. Passed in 2014, the legislation requires individuals who apply fertilizer to more than 50 acres to become certified by Sept. 30, 2017.
FACT was developed by researchers and educators with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University and is offered in partnership with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The training provides research-based tactics to keep nutrients in the field and available to crops while increasing stewardship of nearby and downstream water resources.
Experts say soluble phosphorus runoff from farms is a contributor to the harmful algal blooms plaguing Lake Erie and other bodies of water in recent years.
“Since we started offering this training in the fall of 2014, we have reached more than 10,000 farmers statewide, averaging about two training sessions per county,” said Harold Watters, an OSU Extension field specialist for agronomic systems. “I expect we will be at about 11,000 farmers when the winter training season ends this April 1.”
OSU Extension is the statewide outreach arm of the college.
According to 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, the average Ohio farm is 188 acres. Using this figure, 11,000 farmers trained would represent a little over 2 million acres of farmland impacted so far by FACT.
“We need to reach a total of approximately 25,000 farm owners that need to be certified,” Watters said. “We are less than halfway there but are planning to offer summer field days and additional training before the fall to capture more farmers before we hit the next winter meeting season, when the bulk of the training takes place.”
Each three-hour training session focuses on teaching farmers and commercial applicators the methods and management techniques needed to achieve the appropriate rate, timing, placement and source for fertilizer applications.
“The main goal of this training is to help farmers continue to achieve high levels of productivity while reducing input usage and cost by keeping more of that fertilizer in the soil where crops can use it,” said Greg LaBarge, also a field specialist for agronomic systems with OSU Extension.
“These practices will then translate into better water quality because less nutrients will be washed off farmland and end up in water sources.”
The training also provides information on the link between phosphorus, harmful algal blooms and agriculture; best management practices for phosphorus and nitrogen applications; and soil testing as a valuable tool for confidence and adaptive management.
Watters said a big part of the training revolves around awareness of the link between farm fertilizer runoff and water quality issues.
“I would say about 90 percent of participants have a level of acceptance of the role of agriculture in the current water situation,” he said. “We try to explain their role in the problem and how they can help improve water quality through the techniques and practices we are teaching them.”
LaBarge added that FACT has helped farmers and applicators understand the issue of water pollution better and to see the connections between production and environmental stewardship.
“Farmers receiving this training see that we are talking about issues of importance to them both in terms of economics and the environment,” he said. “All these issues relate to production, as we are trying to help them better match the inputs that go in the soil with the yield that comes out.
“Nutrients lost to runoff impact production and water quality at the same time, so it’s in everyone’s interest to reduce that loss.”
Watters and LaBarge agree that training and implementation of best management practices represent a long-term process and that it will take years to see quantifiable results.
“We’re early in the process and need to be patient,” Watters said. “We need to do more, but we are headed in the right direction.”