For the Bay: Faculty honored for work to improve water quality

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Several faculty members in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences are members of a team that recently was honored by the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer with the 2011 Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Institution and Federal Laboratory Partnership Award for applied research on subsurface manure application in no-till systems.

Team members included Douglas Beegle, distinguished professor of agronomy; Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production/ecology; Robin Brandt, lecturer in agricultural and biological engineering; and Pete Kleinman, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, stationed at Penn State's University Park campus.

Scientists at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, University of Delaware, University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Cornell University and USDA's Agricultural Research Service laboratory in Booneville, Ark., also were part of the team.

Competition for the award -- which is new -- was open to all federal laboratories that conduct research, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey. The Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer is the nationwide network of federal laboratories that provides the forum to develop strategies and opportunities for linking laboratory mission technologies and expertise with the marketplace.

USDA's Agricultural Research Service and the six universities throughout the mid-Atlantic partnered for the purpose of quantifying the effects of subsurface application of manure and poultry litter on crop response, nutrient losses and odor emissions in minimum-tillage crop-production systems and transferring that technology to farmers throughout the region.

"Nutrients -- nitrogen and phosphorus -- and sediment losses from nonpoint sources in agricultural landscapes are major contributors to impairment of water quality in streams, lakes, reservoirs and estuaries," Beegle said. "High-profile initiatives and efforts to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay highlight the concerns over water quality in the region and focus attention on the environmental impacts of animal agriculture."

"No-till and minimum-till crop-production systems are widely adopted, because they are very effective in reducing soil erosion and loss of nutrients adsorbed to soil particles. However, surface application of manure and poultry litter without incorporation exposes nutrients in manure to losses in surface runoff."

Over the long term, nutrients accumulate and saturate the upper few centimeters of the topsoil, Beegle explained, and nutrients then can be solubilized and lost directly from soil in runoff, even when manure is not present on the soil surface.

"Recently developed manure-injection technologies promise reduced nutrient losses and reduced odor, another environmental concern in highly urbanized areas," he said. "However, the various strategies employed by different applicators, such as high-pressure injection, aeration and shallow disk injection, work better under some soil and crop-residue conditions than others, or work better to control nutrient loss but afford less control of odors and vice-versa. Farmers were faced with the uncertainty of not knowing which injection technology was best for their individual conditions."

Project partners, led by the Agricultural Research Service's Kleinman, received multiple grants to fund research and technology-transfer efforts over a five-year period. Initially, Kleinman and Beegle obtained a USDA Conservation Innovation Grant for $196,000 and a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture grant for $114,000 to test, advance and transfer liquid-manure- injection technologies for use by Pennsylvania dairy and swine farmers.

Their efforts in Pennsylvania culminated in additional grants totaling nearly $1.7 million for an array of projects aimed at expanding the adoption of manure injection and subsurface poultry-litter application by manure haulers and contract applicators across the region.

"The key to the success of this partnership has been the linkage between the research expertise in nutrient management and impacts on water quality embodied within the Agricultural Research Service and the statewide extension programs led by the university partners, who are recognized and trusted by farmers within their respective states," said Ray Bryant, soil scientist and former research leader at USDA's Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, which is housed at Penn State.

The efforts of this partnership have had a profound impact on nutrient management in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond, Bryant said. Its accomplishments have benefited farmers and state and federal government agencies seeking to meet new and increasingly stringent water-quality goals and standards.

"Based on results produced by this partnership, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified manure injection and subsurface litter application as 'next generation' nutrient-management practices warranting emphasis under the Chesapeake Bay Program," he said. "Indeed, as part of efforts to meet the 2010 Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load limits on nutrient losses from agricultural sources, all states include manure-injection technologies in their Watershed Implementation Plan strategies to curb nutrient runoff to the bay."

At a national level, members of the partnership currently are working with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to modify standards for tillage practices to remove barriers to manure-injection use in reduced-tillage systems.

"This partnership has resulted in development, acceptance and adoption of manure-injection technology in the mid-Atlantic region to the benefit of sustainable agriculture and improved water quality in the Chesapeake Bay," Bryant said.

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Last Updated October 31, 2011