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McGregor Creek Education and Outreach –
Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative
Please stay tuned! The following will serve as an information source to watershed residents, outlining current findings regarding phosphorus loading in the Great Lakes, pollinator health and soil conservation. Since these topics are currently undergoing intensive research, new research and findings will be added as they develop.
The Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI) Education and Outreach Component funded the development of this webpage. The purpose of this grant is to increase awareness of social, environmental and economic implications for agriculture related to soil health, water quality and pollinator health specifically in the McGregor Creek subwatershed in Chatham-Kent, and generally to the rest of Southwestern Ontario. Support for this project was provided through the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association from the GLASI Education and Outreach Component funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through Growing Forward 2.
The views expressed herein are those of the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority
and do not necessarily reflect those of Ontario.
It is hoped that by providing this one-stop source McGregor Creek Subwatershed landowners and other Southern Ontario residents will be better informed and will implement Best Management Practices (BMPs) to increase soil health, water quality and pollinator health. BMPs can solve many problems currently facing our natural areas while increasing farm productivity and profit. Informational brochures containing options and funding opportunities can be found below. Information on Phosphorus Loading and Pollinator Health is elaborated on below.
Click on these brochures for more information!
View these presentations for more information!
Phosphorus Loading- Why Is It a Problem Again?
Stepping Back in Time
Federal, provincial and state governments acted to form an International Joint Commission that developed regulations and restrictions for phosphorus entering the Great Lakes during the 1970’s. At this time, phosphorus was harming the waters due to the large amounts of effluent from household detergents, industrial and agricultural sources. These phosphorus pollutants were released from both identifiable point sources such as industry, and nonpoint sources such as field-surface runoff.
Point sources of phosphorus are those sources that:
-Are comprised primarily of soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) and consequently are highly bioavailable for algal growth.
-Are discharged in roughly equal daily amounts throughout the year.
-Are relatively easy to measure.
-Their loading can be reduced by point source controls.
Nonpoint sources of phosphorus are sources that:
-Are comprised primarily of particulate phosphorus.
-The particulate phosphorus has relatively low bioavailability, meaning it cannot immediately contribute to algal growth.
-Are delivered to the Lake in pulses associated with runoff events.
-Are relatively difficult to quantify.
-Loading is highly variable from year to year, due to weather conditions.
-Load reductions are achieved by adoption of “best management practices” or BMPs
Types of Phosphorus
Soluble reactive phosphorus or SRP, is phosphorus that has been dissolved and is not visible in the water. This phosphorus is also called dissolved reactive phosphorus and “bioavailable” phosphorus, since it is immediately able to provide nutrients for plant and algae growth. It can be likened to a steroid for plants, causing high levels of growth to occur in a short period of time. The source of SRP is usually from industrial and municipal wastewaters. The reasons for the current problem levels of SRP are outlined below.
Particulate phosphorus effects on plant and algae growth are less immediate, but contribute over time. Scientists are still trying to determine what is happening regarding particulate phosphorus and its role in algal blooms.
Total phosphorus is the term used when SRP and particulate phosphorus levels in a water body are combined.
Total phosphorus loading in Lake Erie during the late 1960’s averaged around 25,000 metric tonnes per year, most of which was from point sources. The lake was becoming eutrophic, producing excessive plant and algae growth which when dead, release harmful gases and reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen necessary for a healthy aquatic ecosystem. Major reductions to phosphorus loading were achieved over the 1970’s but the target load of 11,000 metric tonnes from all sources for Lake Erie was not met until 1981.
Particulate phosphorus from nonpoint source runoff was reduced around the Great Lakes during the 1990’s by implementing erosion controls such as no-till, reduced-till and buffer strips. Since the early 1990’s, soluble reactive phosphorus loading has increased however, and was comparable to 1970’s levels from Ohio streams when measured in 2006.
The Current Situation
Both soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) from households and industry, and SRP and particulate phosphorus levels from agricultural operations, are now a problem. Due to the large increase in SRP entering Lake Erie, the Canadian and U.S. governments have identified problem areas and target levels to achieve, starting in February 2016. Table 1 outlines the planned reduction to total phosphorus load and the areas that are major contributors to the current situation. A 20% reduction in total phosphorus is the target for the year 2020, with a 40% reduction in total phosphorus proposed by the year 2025. Scientists have determined that this reduction will result in excessive algal blooms occurring only once every ten years.
The amount of phosphorus entering the Great Lakes is rising once again, but something else is happening to compound the problem.
What Are the Reasons for the Current Phosphorus Problem?
Reason #1 – Climate Change
Precipitation events have been affecting the Great Lakes. Spring and summer once had lots of small precipitation events occurring, contributing “a little at a time.” Precipitation events now usually consist of large thunderstorms, causing heavy rainfalls that increase surface runoff from both urban and rural areas. This results in surges of phosphorus loading and algal blooms.
The warmer temperatures are also leading to snowmelt events during the winter season. The resulting meltwater carries any phosphorus from fertilized fields into the streams, rivers and lakes, allowing large amounts of reactive phosphorus to be present when spring arrives.
Large lakes normally undergo periods of stratification, during which they form several layers with different temperatures. In the past, winter cold used to form large ice layers on the surface. Particulate phosphorus that had settled to the bottom layer would slowly be converted to soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) in the low oxygen or hypoxic conditions found there. Spring melt and warming water temperatures would cause “spring turnover” events, where the water layers would shift and mix, becoming one huge layer and releasing SRP to help fuel normal plant growth. The production of SRP from particulate P would stop since oxygen was now present in the bottom layer. Over time, stratification, sedimentation and decomposition would all reduce the oxygen levels and cause the bottom hypoxic layer to reform, and the cycle would begin again.
The warmer temperatures now occurring due to climate change are not letting ice formation occur on the lake surface anymore. The hypoxic bottom layer of the Great Lakes is expanding and is present for much longer periods of time. This allows more SRP to be produced and made available for algae, cyanobacteria and plant growth (IJC 2014).
All of the above changes to lakes contribute, but are not wholly responsible for the present Great Lakes water quality situation.
Reason #2 – Invasive Species
Dreissenid mussels, which include Zebra and Quagga Mussels introduced from the Black Sea region of Eurasia, are changing the ecology of Lake Erie. Not only have these non-native invasive species taken over fish spawning sites and removed the food source of young native species, they’ve altered the normal biologic processes of the lake as well.
-have changed the processing of particulate phosphorus in the Great Lakes, releasing it to the shoreline and increasing the contact it has with the water along the shoreline. Scientists are currently studying how this increases the production of bluegreen or Cladophora algae along shoreline locations.
-filter lake water very efficiently, allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper than ever before. This results in larger amounts of algae and cyanobacteria to photosynthesize and reproduce and the resulting problems that occur (see below).
-will not ingest toxin producing Cyanobacteria but do ingest many other bacteria, resulting in large amounts of Cyanobacteria to form in the lake.
Bluegreen algae and Cyanobacteria reproduce and grow very quickly using the large amount of available phosphorus and sunlight now present in Lake Erie. Problems arise when the algae and bacteria are alive since large masses of this block sunlight from penetrating to oxygen producing plants normally found under the water surface. These plants die and subsequently oxygen is no longer available to underwater organisms. When the algae, bacteria and plants die the large biomass decomposes and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogen into the water. This process further reduces the oxygen levels making it difficult for many fish and aquatic organisms to survive.
Reason #3 – Phosphorus Loading from Surface Runoff
Industrial, urban and rural sources are responsible for the increased SRP and particulate phosphorus entering our waters. Rural farming operations will play a big part in solving this problem, but all must work together to reduce current levels of phosphorus.
Algal blooms and Cyanobacteria can:
-release toxins such as microcystins, that threaten drinking water quality and increase water treatment costs
-occasionally force closures of water treatment plants
-clog industrial water intakes
-negatively affect commercial fishing, recreation and tourism
-diminish fish and wildlife habitat and biodiversity
-affect property values
What Does This Mean to You?
The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority initiated a study to identify causes of water quality problems in the Thames River watershed. The Water Quality Assessment in the Thames River Watershed – Nutrient and Sediment Sources (Freshwater Research, 2015) report identifies nutrient and sediment source areas contributing to phosphorus loading in the Thames River and subsequently to the western Lake Erie basin. It was determined that municipal and rural wastewater outflows and surface water runoff are all responsible for current total phosphorus levels.
One major nonpoint source contributor of runoff particulate phosphorus mentioned in the Water Quality Assessment report is the McGregor Creek subwatershed (Fig. 1). One of the recommendations of the report is to implement nonpoint source actions to reduce nutrient loads and concentrations across the Thames River watershed.
The purpose of this information package is to inform area farmers and landowners of the problem and reasons for implementing best management practice (BMP) options specifically aimed at soil types and landforms found in the McGregor Creek subwatershed. This information is also applicable to operations watershed wide. Assistance and funding to determine and implement BMP options is available.
Figure 1. Map of Thames River annual average phosphorus concentration [Adapted from UTRCA Water Quality Assessment in the Thames River Watershed – Nutrient and Sediment Sources (Freshwater Research, 2015)]
Incorporating Best Management Practices or BMPs in our agricultural operations can make a huge difference.
Agricultural Sources of Phosphorus:
-Runoff of fertilizer and manure application during spring snowmelt and heavy rains.
-Soluble phosphorus loading through tile drainage systems is a factor, but recent studies show most phosphorus is entering our waterbodies from surface runoff.
Studies have determined that the largest amount of phosphorus load from agricultural practices entering our waters is occurring during the winter months.
Winter phosphorus loading can be greatly reduced by implementing recommended BMPs:
-Reducing broadcast fertilizing and amount of fertilizer applied
-No fall application of fertilizer
-Using injectors for no-till operations
The above BMPs most suitable to your soil type, slope conditions and farm operation can be determined by having a free Farmland Health Check-Up provided by a Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI) Certified Crop Advisor. Their recommendations will determine your eligibility for a grant through GLASI’s Farmland Health Incentive Program.
The following list outlines grant or cost-share funding opportunities you may qualify for:
- GLASI – Farm Health Check-Up – OSCIA administered
- GLASI – Farmland Health Incentive Program – OSCIA administered
- Growing Forward 2 – OSCIA administered
- Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program (SARFIP) – OSCIA administered
- Agricultural Improvement Fund – LTVCA administered
- Chatham Kent Greening Partnership – LTVCA administered
Why are Pollinators in Trouble?
The introduction of non-native invasive plant and animal species, habitat loss, disease, climate change, pesticides and modern crop practices producing large areas of land lacking plant diversity and good forage sources have all contributed to native pollinator and honeybee loss.
Neonicotinoid pesticides (Neonics) are systemic, meaning the plant transports them throughout itself and has them present in tissues, pollen and nectar.
In Ontario, neonicotinoid-treated seeds are most often used preventatively, even if there is no evidence of a pest problem. Almost 100% of corn seed and roughly 60% of soybean seed are treated with neonicotinoids. Unfortunately for pollinators, there is widespread over use of treated seeds.
The Canadian federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency concluded that the majority of honey bee mortalities in Ontario in 2012 and 2013 were a result of exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides. This is likely due to contaminated dust exposure generated during the planting of neonicotinoid-treated corn and soybean seed. Treated seed dust lands on the pollinators themselves or on surrounding vegetation and if not absorbed when cleaning themselves, the bees carry the pesticide back to the hive.
Honeybees form large colonies and honeybee behaviour encourages worker bees to gather from productive nectar source areas that may have been treated or contaminated by neonicotinoids. Once a worker bee locates a good nectar source, it flies back to the colony and communicates the location to other worker bees using the “bee dance.” The other bees then fly off to utilize this food source. This means whole colonies may be weakened or die due to exposure from a single source.
Effects on European honeybees include:
-death due to direct exposure
-Impacts to hive health through chronic exposure affecting pollen gathering, navigation and reproduction.
-Neonicotinoid residues brought back to hives are linked to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other diseases.
The Ontario government wants an 80% reduction in neonicotinoid treated acreage by 2017.
Native Bees and Pesticides
Pesticides seem to affect the reproduction of, or the offspring of the generation exposed to the pesticide. Fungicides are also suspected of affecting native bee larval survival, perhaps affecting their digestion or nest recognition. Toxic effects hundreds of times more potent to both native bees and European honeybees are observed when both pesticide and fungicides are present as when used individually (Maryann Frazier, entomologist at Pennsylvania State University).
A study of pesticides and their effect on native orchard pollinators by Cornell University, published in June of 2015 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found pesticides had less impact on native bee populations if natural areas were nearby.
Currently it is thought that having a significant amount of natural areas around agricultural areas:
-Provides a larger pollinator population, so if pesticides kill some, others can still pollinate.
-Provides refuge from constant pesticide exposure.
-Provides a diversity of available pollinators.
Current Limitations to European Honeybee Pollination Efficacy
“Because production of our most nutritious foods, including many fruits, vegetables and even oils, rely on animal pollination, there is an intimate tie between pollinator and human well-being,” Mia Park, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of North Dakota.
Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, is having a huge impact on agriculture. American agriculture has relied on European honeybees for centuries. Honeybee hive managers are currently experiencing losses of 30-40% each year, with 70% losses occurring during the worst “colony collapse” years. Farmers dependant on rental hives face high costs or production decreases due to limited honeybee availability.
Crop pollination however, is possible without relying on honeybees.
Cornell University Researcher Mia Park demonstrated that some native bees, like the ground nesting Andrena species, crawl deep into flowers and are four times more effective pollinators than European honeybees. Based on this knowledge, researchers used only native pollinators to pollinate their orchards and were amazed at the results.
Advantages of Native Pollinator Species
Many crops are pollinated more effectively by native species than by honeybees. According to Cornell University entomology professor Bryan Danforth, native pollinators are significantly better pollinators being two to three times more effective, and until colony collapse disorder created a crisis, the role of native bees in crop pollination has been unappreciated. With the right habitat requirements, native pollinators are more available and plentiful than honeybees, and the large variety of species are much less affected by the colony collapse disorder that has caused a large decline in honeybee numbers. Native bees are also pollen collectors, and transfer pollen more efficiently between plants than do their honeybee cousins who are more interested in nectar collection.
Introducing native plants to field edges or nesting/forage sites within fields attracts these native pollinators, while enhancing crop pest management by attracting native predatory insects as well. Since native pollinator species will only fly 200 yards to one mile to acquire pollen and nectar, large open fields would require strategically located nesting sites and forage plants. These sites could be located along drainage ditches, woodlot or forest edge, and other areas of marginal to low productivity.
Native plants attract many predatory insects like wasps, ants, true bugs and beetles that are of great advantage in biological control of crop damaging insects. These predators are attracted both to the nectar and pollen food source as well as to the insects they prey on. They perform damage control while helping pollinate as well.
Having a diversity of native flowering plants suited to the soil type that flower sequentially from early spring to late fall will provide forage for pollinators. These plants can be introduced to marginal or fringe areas of low return like existing fence-lines, grassed waterways, ditches or streams to attract native pollinators.
Native plantings can further reduce phosphorus loading, improve soil conservation, water retention, and the environmental and aesthetic value of the land they are on. Planting native plants like the one’s listed here suited to the area’s soil types and growing conditions, will help native pollinators to access important food sources and they in turn will help pollinate our crops. Plantings are best done by choosing the plants best suited to the area in which they will be planted, then planting in clumps interspersed by clumps of other suitable species. When choosing native species, be aware of when they are flowering, since you want to offer the pollinator’s a food source for as much of the growing season as possible. Many native bee species have queens that overwinter, and need a food source that is available in the fall so they can survive.
The following charts outline native plants that attract native pollinators and beneficial predators for the growth conditions and soils present in the McGregor Creek watershed and most of Southern Ontario. Honeybees are the only species not native to Ontario on this list, but are included since they also contribute to crop pollination.
1) Problems caused by improper soil management
- -Erosion causing soil loss, loss of organic matter and fertility, lower crop quality and productivity
- -Soil carrying pesticides or nutrients entering water bodies lessening water quality
- -Lower water quality results in environmental impacts to fish and wildlife, drinking water as well as commercial and recreational use of natural resources.
2) Soil Types in McGregor Creek Subwatershed
Sandy loam and loam-textured soils can withstand erosion processes better than silt, very fine sand and certain clay-textured soils. Water can readily penetrate loam soils, and if organic matter and good soil structure is present these soils have a greater resistance to erosion from wind as well.
Seeing erosion happen to your sandy loam soil? Visit Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) website here http://ontariosoilcrop.com/oscia-programs/glasi/ and arrange to have a Certified Crop Advisor perform a Farmland Health Check-up. They can advise you on BMPs best suited to your needs and determine your eligibility for the Farmland Health Incentive categories available. Visit http://ontariosoilcrop.com/oscia-programs/glasi/farmland-health-incentive-program/ for more detail.
Silt loam soils are most at risk for water erosion, especially on slopes. Clay loam soils can form a surface crust and can become compacted, resulting in runoff of applied nutrients and soil particles which increase the sediment load detrimental to our waterbodies. This proves costly to the producer, the water quality and community water treatment facilities.
Seeing erosion happen to your silt or clay loam soil? Visit Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) website here http://ontariosoilcrop.com/oscia-programs/glasi/ and arrange to have a Certified Crop Advisor perform a Farmland Health Check-up. They can advise you on BMPs best suited to your needs and determine your eligibility for the Farmland Health Incentive categories available. Visit http://ontariosoilcrop.com/oscia-programs/glasi/farmland-health-incentive-program/ for more detail.
3) General Suggestions to Address Erosion
Always consider your tillage system first. Best Management Practices (BMPs) used for tillage, cover crops and crop rotation are the easiest, most cost effective things to implement before spending large amounts of money on surface drainage systems to reduce soil lost to overland water flow. BMPs contribute greatly to the effectiveness of existing structures and field alterations as well.
- -Use conservation tillage to leave 30-70% crop residue throughout the crop rotation cycle.
- -Harvest as early as possible then seed cover crops. These will serve to anchor residue and soil.
- -Rotate with forage crops to reduce erosion by 40%.
- -Application of manure, compost or biosolids increase soil stability and organic matter, but ensure BMPs regarding tillage are used.
4) Glossary of Best Management Practices
Crop Rotation – by planting soil-enhancing secondary crops, you increase soil organic matter content and crop nutrients, soil structure and the rooting depth available to primary crops.
Using silage corn as an example of a primary crop, the first two years of corn would be followed by three or more years of forage. Cover cropping, no-till planting, or mulching should be implemented in this rotation. If grain corn and silage corn are the primary crops, the grain corn should be planted on any sloping fields. Grain corn leaves considerably more residue on the soil surface than silage corn, increasing soil retention.
Cover Cropping and Mulching – both of these practices provide a barrier over the soil which reduces soil displacement caused by the impact of raindrops hitting soil particles. These practices also reduce the amount and speed of runoff over the soil, especially during periods of snow melt. Considerations for selecting Cover Crops include:
- -How much cover will the crop provide
- -Can the cover crop be harvested the next season
- -Will the cover crop provide weed control
- -Will the cover crop contribute to soil quality
- -Does the cover crop allow nutrient conservation
- -Can the cover crop be seeded to achieve desired coverage within the growing time available
A minimum of 10 cm of growth should be present before winter. If this growth is not achieved by the end of November then the field should be mulched. Cover crops can be seeded by conventional methods, by no-till drills or by broadcast seeding 2 to 5 days prior to a crop harvest.
Mulching is the practice of applying organic material over exposed soil. Hay provides the best mulch as long as it is harvested before the weed content has gone to seed. Straw can also be used. Mulching should occur after late season crops (i.e. potatoes and corn) are harvested. Positioning round bales throughout the field prior to mulching will save time and enable up to 10 ha to be mulched in a day. Mulching on frozen ground greatly decreases the formation of ruts which can carry water and soil away. Once spring arrives, the organic matter can be tilled under to improve soil quality.
Forests & Habitat
- Big “O” Birding Event
- “Plan a ‘Camping Get-Away’ in Lower Thames Valley Country!” Conservation Areas Open Mid-May for Camping Season
- “Spring experiential learning opportunities” Outdoor Ed Programs ‘Step Into Nature’ at Longwoods Road Conservation Area!
- Canada and Ontario Extend Public Consultations on Draft Action Plan to Reduce Harmful Algal Blooms in Lake Erie