Pigs and Soybeans

About 45 people, including members of TMACOG’s Water Quality committees, elected officials, environmental advocates, farmers, and professional representatives of government agencies, took an information-gathering tour of Blanchard River Demonstration Farms near Findlay on September 9. At stops on three farms, the group learned about best management practices for managing stormwater, the results of edge-of-field studies, soil testing and variable rate fertilizing, and the economics of row crops and raising swine.

Scientists have confirmed a strong relationship between agriculture and water quality. Studies show that farming practices contribute 80% of the phosphorus that reaches Lake Erie and feeds algal blooms. Research being done on the demonstration farms to improve nutrient management shows how complex agricultural systems are and how difficult it is to measure improvements. A terrible weather year in 2019 has disrupted some of the research, but at more than half-way through a five-year project, researchers have been able to develop some recommendations.

On Chris Kurt’s farm, scientists are trying to compare fields with similar soils, crop rotation, and size while varying a few elements such as cover crop or tilling. Edge-of-field research stations measure the volume of water leaving the fields (surface and subsurface) and allow water samples to be collected for analysis of the concentration of nutrients in the water. Initial findings from other edge-of-field sites strongly indicate that cover crops take up nitrogen and prevent it from entering waterways. However, a cover crop has a negligible effect on holding reactive phosphorus. Phosphorus drains out at similar rates from bare fields and from one with a cover crop.

On the Kellogg Farms, soil samples are collected from 2.5-acre grids and analyzed for soil health parameters. Information from the soil analysis is used to program the farm machines that distribute fertilizer. Variable rate technology (VRT) allows Kelloggs to deliver nutrients precisely where the soil needs them, and not where tests show it is not needed for plant growth. The tests showed that some land is a hot spot of phosphorus, probably from historical disposal of animal waste at the site of an old barn. This is known as a legacy phosphorus issue and the Kelloggs know not to add any additional fertilizer to this part of the field. In addition, they have converted an area of the field that was not productive to a pollinator habitat. This farm is also experimenting with cover crops and with placing nutrients below the soil surface (subsurface) where it is more available to plant roots and less susceptible to leaving the field through erosion or rainwater.

The Stateler farm grows corn, wheat, and soybeans and also raises pigs. Their operation shows how northwest Ohio’s farmers are part of an international web of commerce, politics, and food. The Statelers don’t own the pigs, they just raise them. They get the pigs from another company when the pigs are 21 days old and grow them for about 150 days. That company pays the Statelers for care of the pigs and the Statelers are responsible for managing the large amount of waste generated. They use the manure produced from a 2,400-head swine operation to fertilize about 200 acres of corn per year. They also sell some manure to neighbors. The manure is not sprayed on the surface, rather a tractor pulls a wide bar with several paired cutting discs. The discs slice open the soil to a depth of about six inches. A narrow hose distributes liquid manure directly into the trench, and the discs then close the dirt over the opening. Mr. Stateler says that this method effectively uses the manure for crops and vastly reduces odors when compared to spraying. There are permit regulations for livestock operations that dispose of waste to waterways or on the surface of fields. These regulations vary according the number of animals and other variables.

One of the pig barns at the Stateler farm.

The economics of farming are complex and daunting. Some farmers talk about getting one paycheck a year when they sell their crops. Pay day comes at the end of a year of investment in seed, equipment, and nutrients. Others get income from pigs throughout the year or hire out their equipment and personnel for hauling manure or grain or for baling hay. Row crop farmers can sell beans or grains (in our region, wheat, corn, and, to a lesser degree, alfalfa and barley) to a nearby co-op elevator straight from harvest. Or they can hold onto the crop, if they have room to dry and store it, and sell at the best prices. Corn can be sold at the co-op, or at an ethanol plant, which pays a bit more.

This year, the unrelenting spring rain has caused economic and environmental distress. Many farmers in northwest Ohio couldn’t get into wet fields to plant at all, and some planted weeks later than is optimal for a good harvest. Taking machinery into wet fields may cause soil compaction which will need to be addressed at some expense. Many had to decide to not plant at all and claim crop insurance which is of some assistance, but is not a bailout. The vast number of unplanted fields means less work (and pay) for farmers and for a broad range of agricultural services. Farmers are less likely to buy new equipment this year. They have less grain to sell which will affect the railroad industry and business at the ethanol plant. Most large farmers lease the majority of the land they farm and they have difficult decisions to make about investing in cover crops for the bare fields, especially on leased property for which they might not have a contract next year. Additionally, the impacts of tariffs are unclear although farmers note that once a commercial relationship is broken, it’s hard to re-establish.

Aaron Heilers, a farmer and the project manager for the Blanchard River Demonstration Farms, got into the dollars and cents. He explained that farmers are losing, on average, about one pound of phosphorus per acre. That is less than five percent of what is applied to a field. A pound of phosphorus costs about 50 cents. Agriculture is being asked to reduce that loss amount by 40% which is about 20 cents worth of fertilizer. The practices agriculture is asked to implement can cost $20-40 per acre and some best management practices can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Despite significant and expensive voluntary efforts by the agriculture industry and by individual farmers like Kurt, Kellogg, and Stateler, ongoing stream monitoring indicates that Ohio has not made significant progress toward meeting the binational goal of 40% nutrient reduction by 2025. TMACOG members, including members of the new Agriculture committee, are listening and learning from farmers and researchers so that they can make policy recommendations that will be effective in reaching this goal.

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