Result for: Crops: Corn for grain Corn for silage Soybeans
4R Practices: Source Rate Time Place

Evaluating the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Concept and Certification Program in the Western Lake Erie Basin

Dr. Kevin King

Lead Researcher:

Dr. Kevin King

Research Soil Scientist

USDA-ARS Soil Drainage Research Unit

Start Date: 2014

End Date: 2019

Collaborating scientists and universities

  • Dr. Thomas Bruulsema, Plant Nutrition Canada
  • Dr. Remegio Confesor Jr., Heidelberg University
  • Dr. Joseph DePinto, LimnoTech
  • Dr. Laura Johnson, Heidelberg University
  • Gregory LaBarge, Ohio State University
  • Dr. Brian Roe, Ohio State University
  • Dr. Douglas Smith, USDA-ARS Soil Erosion Research Laboratory
  • Carrie Vollmer-Sanders, The Nature Conservancy
  • Dr. Mark Williams, USDA-ARS Soil Drainage Research Unit
  • Dr. Robyn Wilson, Ohio State University

Matching Funds

  • USDA-NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant
  • Ohio Farm Bureau Federation
  • Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association
  • Ohio Soybean Association
  • USDA-NRCS Mississippi River Basin Initiative
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • USDA-NRCS Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative
  • Ohio State University
  • Heidelberg University
  • USDA Conservation Effects Assessment Project

Project Summary

Lake Erie is part of the Great Lakes System, which contains 20% of the surface freshwater in  the world. Annually, tourism associated with Lake Erie generates more than $7.4 billion in direct  sales, while Lake Erie seaports generate approximately $1 billion in revenue (USDA-NRCS,  2005). Sport fishing within Lake Erie has also been estimated to generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually. Unfortunately, over the past five years there has been an increased incidence of  algal blooms and proliferation of aquatic weeds. Not only are algal blooms aesthetically unappealing, but they also can cause the formation of hypoxic zones in stratified waters. In some instances, algal blooms contain toxins that are harmful to humans and aquatic life. The increase in nuisance and harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Lake Erie has led to greater water treatment costs, reductions in fish populations, and poor water quality that has negatively impacted fishing and tourism industries within the Great Lakes region. 

The primary cause of water quality impairment and algal blooms within Lake Erie is the input of excess nutrients, such as nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), often transported from agricultural lands. Many growers have accepted responsibility and are taking action to improve soil health and reduce nutrient losses from their fields. However, there are still additional opportunities through scientific and technological advancements to help growers keep nutrients in their fields to benefit both crop growth and watershed health. 4R Nutrient Stewardship is an innovative approach to nutrient management that considers the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of nutrient management. Although the concept is relatively simple (apply the right source of nutrient, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place), following the 4R principles has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of nutrients transported to Lake Erie as well as increase crop nutrient use efficiency. 

One way to encourage adoption of the 4R principles is to first define key actions that characterize nutrient and water stewardship and to recognize good stewardship through a credible certification program. The 4R Certification Program Advisory Committee, led by members of the agricultural industry, grower representatives, and supported by The Ohio State University, state government, and facilitated by The Nature Conservancy, have been meeting since the spring of 2012 to create a program that identifies best management practices (BMPs) and encourages nutrient service providers (e.g., agricultural retailers, crop advisers) to adopt the 4R Nutrient Stewardship concept. The 4R Certification Program will help these nutrient service providers tailor 4R principles to each grower’s unique needs, while minimizing nutrient losses and maximizing crop uptake. This program represents an effort by the agricultural industry to actively embrace a scientific-based approach to nutrient management and sustainable crop production. Such an effort diminishes the need for and the likelihood of public regulations that might otherwise be implemented to decrease nutrient loading to surface waters. 

Project Goals:

  • To monitor the impacts of 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices and the 4R Certification Program on crop productivity, nutrient losses, and biotic integrity from select fields, streams, and watersheds in the WLEB. 

  • To model the environmental benefits in Lake Erie (turbidity and HABs) following various levels of implementation of 4R Nutrient Stewardship practices and the 4R Certification Program in three WLEB agricultural watersheds. 

  • To determine the behavioral impact of 4R educational efforts and the 4R Certification Program on the knowledge, beliefs, and management practices of crop growers and nutrient service providers in the WLEB.

  • To conduct a triple bottom line evaluation of the economic, social, and environmental performance of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program in the WLEB. 

  • To integrate information from all the above to develop indicators for continued public reporting of progress and guide the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program. 

Project Results:

  • Sub-surface placement and incorporating phosphorus fertilizer with tillage, as compared to surface application with no incorporation, reduced dissolved phosphorus concentration in tile discharge by 66% and 75%, respectively. Incorporation of phosphorus fertilizer through sub-surface injection or tillage also reduced particulate phosphorus losses compared to surface application with no incorporation.

  • Injecting phosphorus fertilizer or incorporating in the soil with tillage mitigates phosphorus losses during large precipitation events, reducing seasonal and annual losses.

  • Soil legacy phosphorus has a persistent impact on hydrologic phosphorus losses. Annual phosphorus applications only represented ~3% of the annual phosphorus inputs, indicating legacy phosphorus had a large effect.

  • No-till systems increased drainage dissolved phosphorus loads 72 to 75% compared to conventional tillage. The interaction of management practices and individual site characteristics explained variability in nitrogen and phosphorus losses.

  • Soil-test phosphorus is a good preliminary screening indicator for hydrologic losses, but upland management, edge-of-field practices, and in-stream approaches are required to reduce dissolved-reactive phosphorus losses.

Annual Reports