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Financial benefits to farmers from managing water runoff
Ohio Correspondent

CUSTAR, Ohio — Managing water runoff from fields has the environmental benefit of reducing nitrate levels in streams, rivers and Lake Erie, said researcher Norm Fausey.

Now he’s out to find out if there are economic benefits for farmers as well by expanding his research into six of Ohio’s watersheds.

“I really believe in water management. I get excited about it,” said Fausey, a research leader and soil scientist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and an adjunct professor in Ohio State’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

He spoke Tuesday during Field Crops Day at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center’s Northwest Agricultural Research Station.

“I think there is clearly an environmental benefit to winter water management,” he said.

“What we need to be able to do is tell growers if there’s any benefit to summer management.”

In the next stage of his research, Fausey plans to find out if there is economic benefit to growers in addition to the environmental benefit. He would like to expand the research onto working farms.

“We’re trying enlist growers to let us do some studies on more active fields,” he said.

He could then determine better whether or not there is a yield difference depending on how water is managed.

He is looking for “suitable sites” in each of six Ohio watersheds – Scioto, Miami, Wabash, Maumee, Sandusky and Portage rivers. During the past five years, Fausey has been studying the effects of water control and management.

By blocking drainage outlets, he is increasing the amount of water that filters through the soil instead of running off immediately into tile and into the nearest stream. Nitrates in the water then have a chance to be used by other plants and micro-organisms instead of going directly to the lake.

“There is intimate contact with the living part of the soil,” he said. Organic matter in soil helps sequester the nitrogen. It isn’t available to crops, but it isn’t running off into streams.

“The really important thing for the environment is the amount of nitrates they leave is lowered by 45 percent,” he said.

For example, if a farmer is losing 25 pounds of nitrogen per acre in water runoff, water management would reduce the amount by 10 pounds and only 15 pounds would be moving into Lake Erie.

In his limited tests, the process leaves a slight increase in surface water.

However, he said the nitrogen will not remain in the soil.

“If the water is moving, we can’t keep it,” he said. “And water is always moving. It’s moving laterally in the soil as well. Because of the natural hydrology of the area the water is going to get away.”

Fausey noted that Northwest Ohio was formerly the Great Black Swamp, the last part of Ohio to be settled because it was “not user-friendly.”

He said farmers continue to benefit from the drainage infrastructure created by the first people who drained and farmed the swamp.

Since then, the mentality of farmers has been to drain the land.

But he thinks growers will be receptive to the idea of water management when they understand it.

“I think it’s just a question of providing them with the evidence,” he said. “They’re very receptive. They tend to be environmentally responsible.

“They’re willing to do these things if there’s no out-of-pocket cost to doing it,” he added.

Fausey said the practice is already in place in other parts of the United States.

“I think we’re feeling very comfortable now that it will work in Ohio,” he said. “We’ve got attention at the national level for this practice.”

Nationwide, Fausey said results have shown between 30-55 percent decrease. Ohio averages 45 percent.

“In the next 4-5 years we’re going to see people adopting this program,” he said.

“We have another tool in our toolbox as far as managers,” he said. “We need a superb drainage system to do good agriculture. But why drain it when you don’t need to. This is a tool that lets us use it to our advantage.”

Growers interested in taking part in the research project can contact Fausey at 614-292-9806 or or Larry Brown at 614-292-3826.