Water and Nutrient Community of Practice Meeting


Over 100 people met in Guelph on April 7, 2016 to discuss challenges and opportunities related to water and nutrients in agriculture. Participants included staff from government, conservation authorities, consultants and farmers. The morning consisted of rapid-fire presentations from water-use efficiency, waste water treatment and new monitoring technology to tile drainage, agricultural equipment, and watershed-wide BMP research. After lunch, participants broke out into seven interest groups to identify the strengths, challenges, and opportunities in their sector.

Click the links below to see discussion notes and presentations on specific topics.

  • Tile Drainage

    Many tile drainage systems have been upgraded recently due to an upturn of commodity prices. This benefits yield and soil erosion, but there is a risk of land being tiled when it shouldn’t be. Tile drainage allows beneficial grassland pastures and wetlands to be converted into row crops. Still, winter freeze thaw cycles when tiles aren’t running are an issue for soil and nutrient loss.

    There are opportunities to emphasize the importance of wetlands in rural landscapes. Farmer expectations have reached a point where they need the field to be dry right away, but we can demonstrate ways to increase infiltration without more tile such as increasing soil structure and macropores, and green cover crops allowing for quicker drying. 

    There are opportunities with controlled drainage (and subsurface irrigation), but it’s a challenge to retrofit existing systems. There are still some fields with poor records and poor maintenance of these tiles.

    There are opportunities to accurately measure what is coming out of tile drains in terms of volume and water quality, and to research how this changes with the increasing number of tiles in a field.

    The hope is for innovation in controlled drainage (adapting sewer technology, retrofitting) and potential to capture tile water to treat it.

  • Wetlands & Watersheds

    The strength of a watershed project is that farmers see the connectivity between their properties, BMPs can be targeted instead of being implemented haphazardly and the big-picture is more visible. There are opportunities for unique collaborations and neighbour-to-neighbour diffusion of BMPs to attain a critical mass for research and demonstration. However, the watershed boundaries cut off one half of the field from the other, or one half of a farm from another.  

    Each area is affected differently: based on soil type, practices, and funding opportunities based on different areas and sub-areas. If in an ALUS funded area, farmers can get a payment for putting in a wetland, whereas a neighbour outside of the area had to pay to put the wetland in.

    There are opportunities for a one-stop-shop for permits and funding, and to have neutral third-party entities in areas working between farmers and CAs.

  • Tillage & Erosion

    Reducing tillage has benefits to soil life and levels of organic matter, but the costs of the equipment can be detrimental for some farmers. This also poses a challenge for nutrient losses if incorporation of manure and fertilizer isn’t possible in a no-till system. There are opportunities in applying manure into zones with strip till, though solid manure is still a concern that should be addressed. There may also be misinformation on residue concerns used for the purpose of selling farmers new equipment.

    Farmers that have used reduced tillage systems are the best form of extension. They have done the math on their own farms and they have the practical experience. There are opportunities to address economic yield instead of actual yield and factor cost-savings into farm management decisions.

    There are opportunities to bring contours into strip tillage and for greater research. Can we make a Universal Phosphorus Loss Equation that will spit out the numbers for farmers?

    The social barriers facing adoption of no-till systems are that farmers like iron and they have an ingrained perception that tillage is good for the soil, because it looks cleaner without trash and ‘that’s the way it has always been’. With profit margins tight, they may be even more reluctant to try something new.  Innovation Insurance could be a way to minimize these financial risks.

  • Monitoring Tools

    Monitoring science is improving year by year and more data is becoming available, but sharing data plus lack of staffing and resources for monitoring continue to be challenges. Funding and the accuracy of volunteer data are two concerns. Precipitation forecasts are generalized, but precise recording of rainfall is important.  (The timing of CoCoRaHS monitoring may be an issue, and farmers are usually too busy to make the recordings). Perhaps monitoring could be tied to an economic incentive / disincentive? Perhaps monitoring instruments (as simple as water meters) could be built into certain facilities?

    There are opportunities for online data sharing (including municipal WWTP performance records?) and using georeferenced maps.  It may also be beneficial for farmers to have the tools to take and analyze their own pathogen samples. But sampling at the wrong time will likely give the wrong results.

    Besides concerns with farmers collecting data, there is the risk that farmers won’t use the data and the research results. Farmers may still trust their own experience over soil moisture probes or other tools, for example.

  • Soil Health & Cover Crops

    There is a growing awareness of the importance of cover crops to soil health, but making it work in various farming systems continues to be a challenge. There may be risks of yield losses and issues with termination. This is why peer-to-peer learning and demonstration of the practical how-to is important. There is opportunity to gain better agronomic information and some Return-On-Investment numbers to share.

    Many young farmers may want to try cover crops but face resistance from their parents. Still, cover crops are becoming more socially accepted and there is a general awareness of their value. There is a risk that we are ‘preaching to the converted’ and there should be extra effort to reach the farmers that don’t come to meetings.

  • Greenhouses & Point Source

    New technology is becoming available and costs are coming down for treatment systems, and there are opportunities in financing plans in order to reduce financial risks. Farmers have a greater understanding of the issues and are working to solve them. But, farmers want to know exactly what the MOECC limits are so that they can figure out how to meet the rules.

    There are opportunities to move from the mindset of ‘waste water’ ‘ to ‘resource recovery’ when it comes to  treatment plants and to make the solutions profitable (ie. methane to sell, P to sell). There are opportunities for both the private and the public sector in this transition. But limited funding is a concern and farmers are also concerned that their regulatory burden is higher than those in Ohio and Michigan. 

    There is opportunity for a multi-ministry round-table with farm leaders and industry providing leadership and long term infrastructure planning.

  • Four R's & Fertility

    Precision technology allows farmers to know what they are applying where, but the technology is expensive and there are still complications with the weather and compaction etc. Custom applicators have wider tires to minimize damage but there are certain crop row widths that won’t work with these systems. There are opportunities for more technology and in-field analysis, variable rate technology and opportunities to increase cooperation between farmers and equipment companies. 

    There are also opportunities when it comes to manure storage and handling. Diverting wash water from manure tank will avoid diluting manure, and dewatering technology may be able to reduce the weight and bulk of manure for more effective transport and application.

    The expectations are that CCAs will become 4R certified, and the dream is that this program will be successful in reaching our phosphourous reduction targets.   

    Some farmers may be slower to adopt new technology. It is not just profit that motivates farmers and the largest farmers are not necessarily the most efficient. There are opportunities to simplify messages to farmers.

Do Tile Drains Change the Conversation on BMPS?
Dr. Keith Reid, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Visualizing and Quantifying Sources of Nutrients in the Muskrat River Watershed
Julia Sylvestre, Algonquin College

3 Years Treating Vegetable Washwater
Bridget Visser, Holland Marsh Growers' Association

Soil Moisture: Lessons Learned
Rebecca Shortt , Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Ornamental Horticulture: The Path Forward
Dr. Jeanine West, Flowers Canada

Hybrid Treatment Systems: Water Management in Greenhouses and Nurseries
Ann Huber, Soil Resource Group

Power-Up Your Farm Business
Aaron Breimer, VERITAS

In-Situ Metre for Soluble Phosphate Monitoring
Doug Wilson, SEA-BIRD Costal

Monitoring Newtworks
Ian Nichols, Weather INnovations Consulting LP