The Yates County Soil Health and Nutrient Management workshop is set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 13 at Finger Lakes Produce Auction, Route 14A, Penn Yan. The deadline to register is Feb. 1

We are incredibly blessed to live in an area with active agriculture, vibrant communities, and plentiful natural resources. I see these three areas as vital to the overall health and prosperity of our county.

However, as the increased numbers of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) seen in our lakes have shown us, sometimes we need to step back and evaluate our practices to make sure we are balancing our economic and societal needs with the needs of our environment.

Without a healthy natural ecosystem, all of us suffer. There is not just one root cause of HABs. One area that both communities and farms can look at to improve are reducing inputs reaching the lake. Nutrient loss can be an issue on farms; they are expensive in both money and the time required to apply them. In addition, if inputs move off your land they then become pollutants potentially causing unintended downstream effects. Excess nutrients move off farm by leaching through the soil profile, soil erosion or in runoff, ending up in streams ponds and lakes. Extreme weather events can increase the potential of runoff and is especially an issue in soils with poor water infiltration rates. Many farmers already employ strategies to prevent nutrient losses from their farms but it is important to regularly evaluate what practices can be modified or implemented to further reduce runoff. The five strategies below are a good starting off point to consider where your farming methods could be modified to reduce runoff while maintaining or increasing your farm’s viability.

Nutrient management

A little extra fertilizer per acre can feel like a cheap insurance plan, but instead, it can have real financial and environmental costs. And as prices of fertilizer rise, the economic calculus changes, making precise fertilizer applications key to profitability. It is vital to apply enough nutrients for good yields but not so much that the plants are unable to utilize it all. Taking regular soil tests will help provide you with a picture of the health and balance of nutrients within your soil, and evaluate which nutrients may already be at adequate levels and which need supplementation. Fall is the suggested time to take farm soil samples as it gives you time to adjust pH prior to the next growing season. In-season foliar and soil tests may also give a snapshot of nutrient availability throughout the growing season.

Cover Crops

Another important growing practice is the habit of regularly using cover crops in your rotations. Cover crops provide several valuable functions. These plantings accumulate and hold nutrients in the field until your crops are ready to utilize them. Legume cover crops, with their ability to fix Nitrogen may further reduce or in some years, eliminate your need for additional fertilizer. Cover crops reduce bare soil exposure to the elements, reducing erosion, further reducing nutrient movement off the farm.

Conservation Tillage

Tillage is a powerful tool- it aerates the soil, turns in crop residue, can control weeds, and provides a soft seedbed in which to plant. However, as with most powerful tools, there are serious downsides to regular tillage. Turning in crop residues may lead to bare soil, which in turn may lead to soil compaction and erosion of soil and nutrients. This reduces the fertility and tilth (condition) of farmland and can lead to environmental effects.

Even small to moderate amounts of soil erosion will affect the overall productivity of farmland. The sediment from erosion can make its way into ponds and lakes and lead to sedimentation and nutrient imbalances. Elizabeth Dayton, a researcher from Ohio State University, estimated that 75 percent of phosphorus lost from fields in Ohio is through soil erosion. No-till or reduced tillage farming preserves the soil profile and natural drainage points such as worm tunnels allowing water to infiltrate quickly. Faster infiltration prevents sediment and nutrient runoff during extreme weather events where multiple inches of rain may fall in short time span.

There is a spectrum of soil management techniques when it comes to tillage, from conventional tillage to completely no-till operations. No-till and reduced tillage systems have been shown to be effective strategies on both organic and conventional farms although the management will differ greatly.

Buffer Plantings

Buffer plantings are 3-5 foot wide permanent unmowed grass areas left to grow along ponds and waterways. The plantings help stabilize the banks and act as a living filter for runoff. According to the NRCS, properly maintained buffers may remove 50 percent of nutrients from runoff and reduce sediment by 75 percent or more. In addition, these buffer zones may operate much like hedgerows, providing nesting spots for ground-nesting birds and reservoirs for natural enemy (beneficial species) populations and pollinators.

Livestock Management

Keeping livestock out of streams and other waterways reduces the risk of fecal contamination of waterways, which reduces nutrient and pathogen contamination of waterways. There are several strategies that can be employed to reduce risks. They include fencing off streams and ponds with a single piece of electric fencing, placing rocks along the banks and at stream crossings to prevent livestock from spending time standing in the water, providing alternate watering areas, and alternative sources of shade.

The above areas are good places to start in reducing nutrient loss from your farm. Consider attending the Yates County Soil Health and Nutrient Management workshop to learn more about how farmers can work to keep nutrients and soil where they need it- on the farm, growing food to support us all. The workshop will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Finger Lakes Produce Auction.