The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its research partners predict that western Lake Erie will experience a harmful algal bloom (HAB) of cyanobacteria this summer that is larger than the mild bloom in 2018. One Michigan farmer — in a David-and-Goliath-type way — is taking on the culprit with vigor by partnering with the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
Jay and Kelli Williams’s Stoney Ridge Farms LLC near Waldron, Mich., is a mere mile or so north of the Ohio border. With their three sons — Sam, Seth and Silas — the first-generation family farm raises 1,340 acres of corn, silage corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa in Hillsdale and Lenawee counties. They also farm roughly 1,500 acres of custom tillage and planting for a nearby dairy farm.
Traditionally, they employed full and conservation tillage for corn and primarily no-till for soybeans and wheat. Recently, they’ve undergone a transition to a full no-till operation, employing cover crops for environmental health and sustainability. They’ve also been part of a five-year project in conjunction with the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) and Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) to undertake tile outlet water quality monitoring to determine what, if any, impact their farm and the others in the project have on water quality in the western Lake Erie watershed.
“We’ve tried to be advocates on water quality going back to the Michindoh Aquifer days when it was thought to be impaired,” Jay Williams said. “Then six years ago, word began to spread of issues with Lake Erie. We kept hearing that it’s a farm problem — that nutrients are leaving farms and causing lake issues. We wanted to determine if this was indeed a farm problem and if we did see it in our waters, then what do we do to correct it. So, for the last five years, we’ve pulled hand samples from this tile outlet from the first thaw to the first of July every time there’s been a rain event over a half inch… in an effort to combine a database of what’s really leaving our farm.
“And based on what we found, we made adjustments in our production practices.”
Williams found nutrients were indeed leaving the farm. Then again, he didn’t expect it to be zero.
He found dissolved reactive phosphorus and nitrates in the samples, sediment movement in the drain, and issues with some of the conservation practices the farm was using.
“We’ve had a ditch bank next to a filter strip since 2006. The filter strip is supposed to capture nutrients but given the restrictions of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that the filter strip was enrolled in, you can’t harvest the nutrients off in the form of hay or grazing,” Jay said. “We pulled soil samples to determine what was really there, and we determined it was very high in phosphorus right where we didn’t want it to be — next to the water. With the strip now out of the program, we’ve started haying it to see if we can reduce the nutrient levels and have an impact on the water as well.”
Along with increased no-till activity, Williams is incorporating more cover crops on the farm. He’s using variable-rate methods in applying fertilizers. He’s doing plant tissue testing for nutrient levels. And, he’s looking at the practice of cover crop grazing in an attempt to work nutrients through animals.
These practices, in conjunction with the fact he’s hosted nutrient management field days for the past four years, caught the attention of USGS. The federal agency installed an automatic tile outlet water testing system this past May on the farm to take year-round water tests and increase their data collection over the next four years.
USGS HELPS OUT
Cynthia Rachol is a hydrologist with USGS Upper Midwest Water Science Center. She oversees the newly-installed automatic tile outlet water monitoring system at Stoney Ridge Farms, which is one piece in the Edge-of-field monitoring: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). GLRI edge-of-field monitoring focuses on identifying and reducing agricultural sources of excess nutrients which threaten the health of the Great Lakes. The USGS supports these efforts by utilizing edge-of-field monitoring to assess the quantity and quality of agricultural runoff and evaluate conservation practices that aim to reduce sediment and nutrient loss.
Out of Rachol’s office in Lansing, Mich., they run a stream gauging network of roughly 180 gauges throughout the state, looking at the flow on different rivers of different sizes. Some sites also look at water quality. Rachol became very interested in looking at sediment transport at some locations where there were issues ranging from dam removal to erosion that was either naturally or human-induced.
“I'll be the first to admit that my background is not in agricultural engineering but looking at water quality, knowing how to sample the water that's flowing, either through the tile drain or off the surface of the farm field itself,” Rachol said. “It’s also looking at how much flow is going through those areas. I work closely with the conservation district and the farmer — as far as what they're looking for in the data — and how best to have that conversation: When things are being applied, when planting is occurring, (and) when harvest happens. We are looking at those major activities and relating it to what we're seeing in terms of flow response and water quality.”
Stoney Ridge Farms has a network of three tile drains that feed into the ditch where the new system collects samples every 15 minutes. In the event of a storm, resulting in faster flow, sampling speed can increase to every five minutes. Those samples are read on the hour in Lansing with results accessible by Rachol and Williams via computer or phone app.
The ditch flows into Mill Creek, which is in some way connected to Bean Creek, Tiffan River, and the Maumee River. From there, the waters flow into the western Lake Erie.
Rachol said the project is funded “solidly” for the next three years. Still, with the frequency of rain this year, she’s concerned that they might burn through their allowance too soon. In a normal weather year, one full crop cycle worth of monitoring is preferred.
“Jay is one of the types of producers we really love to work with,” Rachol said. “He's very engaged, he's very knowledgeable, and he really wants to get the questions answered as to what's coming off his field. Even as far as collecting the samples himself, what we're hoping to do is hone in on those time periods when he wasn't able to make it out, such as when the tile was under water, or in the middle-of-the-night situations when we've seen quite a few events happening at 1 or 2 in the morning.”
Watch Cynthia Rachol explain the USGS Tile Monitoring Station in five minutes.
A Ditch to Environmental Progress
Williams’s ditch is just one of many tributaries eventually making its way to Lake Erie. Donna Runkle, a USGS Hydrologist based in Columbus, Ohio, oversees many of the 16 data collection sites on streams feeding into the Maumee.
“The work Cynthia and Jay are doing is very helpful in determining the specific site location and the dynamics that drive the water quality at this site,” Runkle said. “The data we collect here and from the other locations are used to calculate nutrient and sediment loads. We use those loads in order to say the load in this particular tributary or at that particular location was this amount, and that differed from the previous year and the next year. That data helps policymakers determine where the loads are coming from, and therefore, where they need to focus their dollars.”
It also determines the agricultural practices farmers might employ in order to reduce nutrients and sediment from the fields, Runkle said.
Lisa Fogarty, the science coordinator with USGS in Lansing, works with a group of scientists who are the “end side” in the Western Lake Erie Basin (WLEB). There, they look at the algal bloom that seems to occur every year.
“Their job is to understand more about the nutrients and what impact they have as it enters the lake,” Fogarty said. “We know with all this monitoring data and data collection, we want to be able to say it's having an impact. As we reduce nutrients, we should see a reduction in the bloom. Can we measure that? A lot of our work is understanding the bloom dynamics. How big does it get, how intense does it get, when does a bloom go from being a green occurrence in the lake to something that's producing toxin and impacting our drinking water intakes? It's not always the same and we don't understand what all those drivers are yet.”
Fogarty said nutrients are important, but that “there are more data and information we need to gather to really understand what's going to happen in the lake.”
“The nutrients are part of the reason for the blooms,” Fogarty added. “Cyanobacteria is the cause of the bloom. It's a microorganism that needs sunlight. It needs nutrients, it needs oxygen, so it's the combination of all of these. It needs not just phosphorus, but it needs nitrogen as well. It needs trace metals like zinc and iron, so it needs all of this is in order to grow. It took us years to get here, and it's going to take us years to get out of it.
“I think the part people have to understand is we're not going to have an answer tomorrow, but, hopefully, we start to understand that we're seeing the impacts from the entire community in a watershed and … (we) come together to address it.”
Williams as David from the classic parable versus Goliath – or in this case, western Lake Erie — understand the efforts that need to be made to make progress.
It’s one of the reasons why his doings aren’t getting unnoticed.
“Jay is the example of exactly the kind of Farm Bureau member that really helps both our organization and in the promotion of good environmental practices,” said Laura Campbell, manager of Michigan Farm Bureau’s Agricultural Ecology Department. “He's one of those proactive operators who wants to know not only what's happening on his farm, but what he can do to make his operation both successful and protective of soil health and water quality.”
Campbell said many farmers are “very nervous about sharing information that comes from a project like Jay’s.”
“It’s scary to think that I'm going to have researchers, maybe even regulators, coming onto my farm, putting a bunch of stuff in the water and looking at what comes out of it,” she said. “You don't get to hold back the data, so that's one thing I really credit people like Jay for — being able to take that step and say, ‘I know the information is important.’”
USGS currently has multiple edge-of-field projects in four river basins in five states — New York, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan.
According to David Straub, science chief for the Environmental Health Section of USGS in Columbus, Ohio, the data collected from Williams’s farm and other waters that feed into the Lake Erie Basin will be reviewed to determine if progress is being made toward the state of Ohio’s goal of a 40 percent reduction in nutrient loads to Lake Erie.
“When you're working in a whole lot of different watersheds, a difficult problem is finding sites where we can actually collect data,” Straub said. “Finding farmers who’ll allow us on their property is one of the biggest problems. NRCS works closer with the farmers than we do, so we appreciate any connections that can be made.”
As part of the current project, Stoney Ridge Farms will host its fifth Nutrient Management Field Day on Aug. 22, 2019. There, more than 150 producers will learn about water quality, soil health, cover crops and nutrient management.
“We have nothing to gain by not being proactive,” Williams said. “We need to be proactive about not only the water, but air issues, and relations with our neighbors. The alternative isn't good for us as an industry or for our communities. If we can step forward and address things the very best we can, I think that goes a long way toward keeping our reputation the way it always has been, that we’re stewards of land and the resources around us, making sure we're producing things in a way that takes care of the environment for everybody.”
If you’re a farmer interested in participating in research studies, you can visit your local Conservation District office, located usually within a USDA Service Center. In addition, the area MAEAP Technician can also help in getting farmers connected with the right people.