By Alayna DeMartini
The new year brings more courses to become certified in a skill farmers will probably need in 2018: spreading fertilizer.
Fertilizer certification and recertification courses are about to start up again and are offered across the state through Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University.
The certification is aimed at teaching ways to spread fertilizer that minimize the risk that the fertilizer runs off the land with rainwater and into nearby waters, especially Lake Erie, which has been plagued by high levels of algal blooms.
Since Sept. 30, 2017, certification has been required for anyone who applies fertilizer on 50 or more acres of land. So far, 18,600 people across the state have gone through the required training.
“I think there’s a large number of environmentally conscious farmers who are looking at a number of ways to improve what they’re doing, in terms of nutrient management,” said Greg LaBarge, an OSU Extension field specialist and a leader of a statewide phosphorus water quality monitoring effort.
More than likely, most people who need the certification have gotten it, LaBarge said.
It’s difficult to determine exactly how many of the farmers who are required to get certification have done so. While the USDA tracks how many farms grow corn and soybeans on 50 or more acres of land, some farm owners hire someone else to apply fertilizer on their land, so they would not have to be certified.
Through the certification process, farmers are realizing that what they put on their land can affect bodies of water miles away, said Harold Watters, an OSU Extension agronomy field specialist. Watters helps teach certification and recertification courses.
“Awareness brings change,” he said. “Many have said, ‘Now I need to think about what leaves the farm.’ ”
Farmers sometimes assume the more fertilizer they put on their crops, the higher yields they will get and therefore the higher income they’ll receive, Watters said. The problem is that sometimes a field may not need more nutrients added to it, so the fertilizer is an unnecessary expense, he said. And if the crop does not take up the nutrients, it remains in the soil and could run off the land with rainwater. Ohio’s mostly clay soils can hold onto nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus for years, so fertilizers are not needed every year, Watters said.
“All the nutrients you need may be sitting there ready for the crop and become available through the season and the year,” he said.
One way to prevent applying too much fertilizer is a soil test, which can determine how much, if any, nutrients are needed. However, soil tests can be costly, so it might seem it’s cheaper to buy and apply more fertilizer than it is to test the soil to see if it needs the additional fertilizer, Watters said.