Jul 31, 2012


Beware of Blue Green Algae Threats to Farm Ponds
   by Mary Fund

As the summer heat and drought bear down on the Heartland, the threat of blue green algae blooms in reservoirs and farm ponds increases. Blue green algae (BGA) can sicken or kill livestock and other animals, and is also harmful to humans, so pre-cautions must be taken.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) issues advisories and warnings for public reservoirs and recreational waters, but farmers and ranchers need to be aware of the threats to farm ponds and creeks that provide livestock water.

Kansas State University has produced a Fact Sheet, “Identification and Management of Blue-green Algae in Farm Ponds” available online at http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/library/h20ql2/mf3065.pdf. If blue-green algae are suspected, a water sample should be collected, and can be sent to the K-State College of Veterinary Medicine Diagnostic Laboratory. ($19/sample). The KSU fact sheet includes tips on taking a water sample and where to send for testing.

BGA is a bacteria that favors warm, stagnant water and thrives in nutrient laden waters, so farm ponds are at high risk. This year many farm ponds started the spring with low water levels due to the dry winter. That combined with lack of rainfall and high temperatures have increased the threat.

In late May, BGA was identified as the probable cause of death of 22 cattle at a Marion County ranch. Veterinarians involved say there is no way to definitively prove that BGA were the cause, but the evidence is strong.

According to KSU veterinarian Larry Hollis, BGA looks like a pale greenish oil scum on top of the water, except around the edges where it is more cobalt blue in color. KDHE also reports that some algae blooms can look like foam or a thick slurry, and can be blue, bright green, brown or even red, and may look like paint floating on the water. All ponds have algae and moss, but veterinarians say the BGA looks different enough to catch your attention.

If a BGA bloom is suspected, it is important to remove the livestock as quickly as possible as the toxins produced can kill animals within a short time. Fencing the pond and providing an alternative source of water is necessary.

Human reaction to contact with BGA range from irritating skin rashes to respiratory complications to severe vomiting and diahrrea. Humans are unlikely to consume pond water, but avoiding contact is important.

KDHE also has information available on their website at http://www.kdheks.gov/algae-illness/index.htm

Clean Water Project Wraps Up Its Work; KRC to Explore Emerging Resource Issues
Central to the project was the River Friendly Farm
Environmental assessment and whole farm planning tool.
Protecting water quality and building soil and providing
livelihood for the farmer/rancher requires
looking at the whole farm and all its

Starting in July, the Kansas Rural Center Clean Water Farms Project (CWFP) will be a much reduced version of itself. Due to state and federal budget cuts, KRC’s work will be reduced from 18 watersheds to just four watersheds in the eastern half of the state.

As part of the state’s Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy Program (WRAPS), KRC and other service providers and a number of WRAPS watersheds will either receive no funds or reduced funds for the next fiscal year. In April, KRC was offered a package of funding to continue working in ten watersheds, but after analysis determined that the funds were not enough to make the program viable, and that participating would cost KRC more than it could afford, KRC opted to continue working in only four watersheds.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), who administer the funds, and the WRAPS Work Group, which is made up of advisors to KDHE from state and federal agencies and institutions, had the unpleasant task of dividing up the shrinking dollars among service providers like KRC and WRAPS watersheds around the state.

KRC will continue working in four watersheds, where funding and close staff proximity made the workload doable. Field Staff Dale Kirkham, Eureka, will continue on a quarter time basis working in the Eagle Creek and Toronto WRAPS watersheds, and Mary Howell will work half-time in the Middle Kansas and Tuttle Creek WRAPS watersheds. In these four watersheds, they will continue to offer limited one-on-one farmer and rancher assistance, organizing edu-cational workshops and tours, and assist farmers and ranchers in developing cost-share applications for WRAPS funding to implement best management practices.

KRC’s involvement in general water and conservation issues, though, is far from over.

“KRC has a long history of involvement with natural resource issues. We were into water quality before it was cool. Now, there are lots of players and lots of options,” stated Mary Fund, KRC’s long-time water and resource project coordinator. For the future, Fund states that KRC will explore new questions and the emerging challenge of farmer adapta-tion to a changing climate.

“Whether you call it climate change or not, Mother Nature appears to have some big challenges ahead for us. Farmers and ranchers will have to find ways to make food production resilient in a changing world.”

Funding, though, she conceded, is going to be tough not only for non-profits like KRC seeking to help farmers, but for producers looking for financial and technical assistance for conservation practices on their farms and ranches, as state and federal programs are cut.
“The state and federal reduction in funding comes at a time when there is unprecedented grass and pasture land being broken out to raise high priced crops,” she explained. “And this comes at a time when climate and weather is becoming more unpredict-able, and the consequences of doing the wrong thing will be harder to correct down the road.”

Farming more vulnerable erosion prone land and reducing biodiversity, Fund asserts, is a recipe for disaster.

“Cultivating resilience is what we need to be doing-- not just on individual farms and ranches but in the farming and food system overall,” stated Fund. “And practices that help farmers and ranchers do this is where KRC hopes to place its natural resource focus in the coming years.” 

Clean Water Farm Project Background and History

The CWFP Advisory Team met twice a year to review and select cost-share projects and provide input into the program's  direction. Above was taken in 2007.

For well-over a decade, U.S. EPA 319 funds through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) gave KRC the opportunity to offer farmers and ranchers financial assistance and out-reach/education to adopt sustainable farming practices that protect water quality.

Since 1995, KRC ‘s Clean Water Farms Project provided $590,000 in cost-share dollars to farmers and ranchers to implement practices to protect water quality and farmers -- long before some of those practices were commonly accepted. For instance, KRC was among the first in the state to fund manage-ment intensive grazing systems, providing funds for alternative watering systems and cross fencing.

In 2000, the project developed a whole farm planning tool, the River Friendly Farm Environmental Assessment, as a way to help farmers and ranchers identify problems and needed management changes and how to implement changes on their farms. Over 300 Ks. farmers completed whole farm plans.

Use of the tool assumes a systems approach to farming. Not one BMP at a time, or one issue at a time, but an approach that looks at the cropping system, the grazing and pasture and livestock operation, the wildlife habitat on the farm, the water resources-- as well as the human resources. Then it helps the farmer or landowner identify solutions or improvements, develop a plan and timeline, and links the farmer to financial and technical resources to achieve that plan.

KRC administered 150 cost-share projects that between 2000-2010 alone leveraged over $400,000 in state and federal cost-share. A recent KRC survey of past program participants indicated that most adopted additional practices beyond their KRC funded project-- most often at their own expense. Farmers (and KRC) contributed nearly $3 million of their own money toward those and additional projects.

Cost-share was capped at $5,000 per farm, so that available funds could be distri-buted to more producers. Many of the farmers and ranchers KRC worked with, for one reason or another, did not participate in the state or federal conservation programs--too much red tape, or they were simply not eligible for the program, or too much time spent waiting for approval.

During the project, outreach and education was a strong component. KRC conducted over 90 farm tours, 145 work-shops, and over 260 presentations on farming and sustainable farming practices reaching thousands of people.
Before receiving the first funds, KRC was doing on-farm research of farming practices with farmers. KRC was working with practices to reduce chemical fertilizer and pesticide use, use legumes as forages, use cover crops to provide both nutrients, erosion control and forages for livestock, and other alternative practices to rely more on on-farm resources and less on inputs. The CWFP funds enabled KRC to offer farmers cost-share funds to absorb some of the initial risk they were taking by adopting these practices.

About five years ago, the project began shifting to the state’s Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy (WRAPS) frame-work established by KDHE, where attention has focused more on individual BMP’s and not a whole farm approach, as the primary means to achieving TMDL’s (total maximum daily load) standards in sub-watersheds with specific problems and high ranked target areas.

KRC will continue working in four watersheds. The RFFP assessment tool will continue to be available on KRC’s website at http://www.kansas rural center.org/ publications/RFFP.pdf, and you can contact KRC with questions. 

Does Your Cover Fit?

  by Lyle Kohlmeier

Recent dry conditions may have some wondering whether cover crops are a good idea or not as they worry about what kind of moisture they take out of the soil profile. But farmers who have been using cover crops have been surprised at what they’ve learned in recent dry years.  Root systems developed by the cover crops  and the aboveground foliage actually cooled the soil, and suppressed weeds that might have also depleted soil moisture. Also, the cover crop can be harvested to provide livestock food at a time when all forages are in short supply. Lyle Kohlmeier, who left the KRC  Clean Water Farms Project the end of June, wrote the following  last spring just as the concerns began to deepen about the dry conditions in Kansas.  Editor

 No, I am not talking about the sheet on your queen size bed.  I am talking about one of the more recent topics of discussion in water quality, grazing lands, and conservation: the use of cover crops.  

   Many producers have already or are considering incorporating cover crops into their management system.  The reasons for including cover crops vary from one operation to the next.  The most common reasons include addressing soil health issues, increasing grazable forages, or reducing purchased inputs, such as commercial fertilizers.

   If you are considering incorporating cover crops into your operation, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is, “What am I trying to achieve with this cover crop?”  Your overall objective will begin to give direction to where you need to head.

   There may be several different conditions or a combination of conditions you are trying to address.   Once you know what you are trying to achieve, a good inventory and understanding of your current conditions will aid in clarifying some of the options you may want to consider.  

   Are you dealing with low organic matter levels, compaction layers, high input costs, or needing to diversify your crop rotation?  Different cover crop types are going to address different conditions.  For example, if you are trying to address a soil compaction issue, a deep tap root crop may be a good option.  To address low organic matter levels, a fibrous root grass type crop could be the answer.

   If your interests are dealing with grazing issues, again it is important to evaluate your existing forage sources and where the gaps or low quality periods currently exist.  For example if your current forage source is predominately supplied by warm season grasses, you may want to consider a cool season cover crop to increase the period of higher quality grazable forage.  

   You may be currently based on cool season introduced grasses.  Inter-seeding these stands with legumes can reduce your inputs of purchased plant nutrients and extend the forage quality longer into the grazing season.

   Many producers are opting for multiple benefits from the use of cover crops by the use of a mix or “cover crop cocktail”.  The use of a mix can help you obtain grazing benefits along with soil health and/or water quality benefits.  A cover crop mix can help you harvest more moisture and plant nutrients throughout the soil profile that your current crops may not be able to reach.

   Getting a good handle on your conditions and understanding the effects of the different cover crops will help make sure the cover crop fits the situation.   If you are interested in adding cover crops to your operation and are not sure where to start or need help in evaluating your existing condi-tions and developing alternatives, there is help available.  For more information or help in evaluating your conditions and options, just contact your local Conservation District, Watershed Restoration and Protection Coordinator, or the Kansas Rural Center.  

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