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Western Lake Erie Basin

Working with Agriculture: the 4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship

Using the 4Rs helps achieve sustainable plant nutrition management while also considering water quality.

The 4R Certification Program represents an effort by the agricultural industry to be proactive, using a scientific approach to nutrient management. By becoming 4R certified, agriculture commits to improving our water quality and doing their part for the environment, while producing crops we need.

Lake Erie is a source of drinking water for millions, home to more than half of all the fish in the Great Lakes, and a draw for both in-state and out-of-state tourists. The Western Lake Erie Basin one of the most productive areas to grow food in the country. While we need fertilizers to produce food, some fertilizer leaves fields and enters our streams and lakes.

Algal blooms in Lake Erie
These lost nutrients are one of the contributors to the rise in harmful algal blooms in our streams and lakes over the last 5 years. These algal blooms lead to increased water treatment costs, reductions in fish production, and poor water quality which has negative impacts on fishing, tourism and citizens that get their drinking water from Lake Erie.

4Rs of Nutrient Stewardship
To help solve the problem of excess nutrients in our waters, the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program was created. The 4R Program, created by the agricultural industry, state agri-business associations, The Nature Conservancy, The Ohio State University, Michigan State University, state farm bureaus, state agencies and others, encourages agricultural nutrient service providers to adopt proven best practices through the 4Rs, which refers to using the Right Source of Nutrients at the Right Rate and Right Time in the Right Place. This voluntary program provides a consistent, recognized standard for nutrient service providers in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio where surrounding waters drain into Lake Erie.

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program outlines 41 criteria to be implemented, staggered over a 3-year period. Each criterion will be re-evaluated each year by a private, third party auditor, via an in-person or desk audit, to maintain certification.

There are three sections to the Program, which include:

  1. Initial training and on-going education
  2. Monitoring of 4R implementation; and
  3. Nutrient recommendations and application.

The 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program is governed and guided by the 11-member Nutrient Stewardship Council, a diverse set of stakeholders from business, government, university and non-governmental sectors with a common goal of maintaining agricultural productivity while also improving the quality of Lake Erie and its contributing watersheds. The Nature Conservancy's Carrie Vollmer-Sanders currently serves as chairperson of the Council.

Evaluation and Research
Ongoing evaluation of the program is planned, including an annual review of the standard and the 3 Ps (people, planet, and profit) of the 4Rs. While environmental impacts of the program will take longer to evaluate, economic and social data will be available in the near term. With the leadership of Dr. Kevin King (researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service), specific impacts of the adoption of practices associated with 4R Nutrient Stewardship, and the impact of the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Certification Program itself are being evaluated based on crop productivity and profitability, water quality, and perceptions of growers, nutrient service providers, and residents in the WLEB. Please visit the 4R website for more information on the impact of this program in the Lake Erie watershed.

Current Impact
The 4R Program has certified 16 nutrient service providers. There are 630,000 acres in the Western Lake Erie Basin that are influenced by a 4R Certified Provider. These providers reach 1,580 farmers. Because an individual agri-business may offer services in several watersheds, the program’s overall footprint is larger: 1,113,000 acres and 3,040 farmers, which includes acres outside of the WLEB - Lake Erie Central Basin and Ohio River watershed.

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