Profitable alternatives to improve water quality from high nutrient status farms

Final Report for LS04-159

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2004: $288,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Matching Federal Funds: $93,555.00
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $113,778.00
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Dorcas Franklin
University of Georgia, Crop and Soil Sciences
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Project Information


Final Report LS04-159
Profitable Alternatives to Improve Water Quality from High Nutrient Status Farms Dorcas H. Franklin, Julia Gaskin, and Matt Poore
July 2008

In the Southeastern (SE) Piedmont region, many farm fields are considered to have a high nutrient status because soil test phosphorus (STP) levels are above those which may result in increased risk of phosphorus (P) contamination to surface water bodies. This high nutrient status is thought to be a result of the current unbalanced pattern of nutrient management. In the SE Piedmont, integrated bovine/poultry grassland systems prevail. In these systems, nutrients are imported as inorganic fertilizer, animal manure, or animal feed but only a small portion is exported off the farm. Manures from poultry or dairy cows are utilized as a means of efficient sustainable management to fertilize grass lands used for both pasture or hay while improving soil quality. Phosphorus, a terrestrial based nutrient, is often tightly bound in the soil while nitrogen (N) can be lost to the atmosphere or leached as nitrate. Over time, in an effort, to provide the grass lands with adequate N and C for good productivity through the use of manure applications, soil P begins to build up because the N:P ratio of manures is narrower than that required by plants. Continuous imports of nutrients into the SE, combined with little to no export of those nutrients, results in an unhealthy nutrient management system that may lead to eutrophication of surface waters.

Profitable alternatives to current farm production systems are needed in the SE USA. Beef production provides a small but steady income on most small family farms. Larger profits are more often returned from crop production agriculture than from animal (beef) production. Combining the two practices can stabilize the more dynamic crop production enterprises and may improve profitability. The SE needs a source of poultry feed. Currently, the corn used in poultry feed is brought from midwestern states, which implies a transfer of P (in the corn) to poultry-producing states. Pearl millet has been shown to be as good or better than corn for poultry rations and can be successfully grown in the Southeastern US (Collins et al., 1997). There is an additional need for “horse quality” forage to feed a steadily increasing population of horses raised in the outer edges of urban sprawl.

Management practices which would utilize excessive N and P (Flynn et al., 1993; Menezes et al., 1997), export those nutrients off the farm, or at least away from stream-side fields, and increase the earning capacity of the farm are much needed in the SE USA. Franklin et al. (2003) showed that losses of N and P in runoff from pastures were significantly higher than losses from hay lands. In the hayed system, nutrients are extracted from the soil and exported off site. Forages such as alfalfa and coastal bermuda are in great demand and if managed properly are considered to be “horse quality” forage. Pearl millet has been shown to be a viable alternative for poultry feed and can be grown in the SE without detrimental problems. It is our hypothesis that if producers have a profitable management alternative that will improve water quality it will be utilized. We propose to evaluate the integration of crop/forage systems into animal based systems for their ability to improve net farm income while removing excess nutrients from the soil and providing a regional source of poultry feed and forages.

The overall goal is to improve small farm profits while improving water quality. This will be achieved by the following specific objectives:

Evaluate crop/forage rotations which will serve the southeastern US market for beef production, “horse quality forage”, and poultry feed in agronomic and economic terms.

Determine nutrient concentration in runoff and in stream water upstream and downstream of farm-fields with and without crop/forage rotations.

Share results with agronomic and animal production farmer groups in Georgia and North Carolina and develop information exchange tours between those groups.

These are accomplishments submitted for the final report July, 2008 (April 15, 20074 to May 14, 2008), Phase II of the project Watershed Assessment Through Ecological Research/Farmers Active in Research (WATER/FAIR Phase II).

Julia Gaskin, Drs. Matt Poore and Dory Franklin

University of Georgia
58-6612-5-263 UGA PI: Julia Gaskin
“Profitable Alternatives to Improve Water Quality from High Nutrient Status Farms” UGA Subcontract 2006 Report from Julia Gaskin
Pearl Millet Production Meeting – On March 9, 2006 a farmer meeting was held with pearl millet experts form the University of Georgia – Dr. Dewey Lee and the Agricultural Research Service – Dr. Jeff Wilson. After introductions, the group went around the table and discussed problems encountered during the last growing season. Planting depth, weed control, row width, and other production practices were discussed and an approach agreed upon for the 2006 season.

North Carolina Exchange Farm Tour - On May 30 and 31, 2006, farmers and extension personnel from North Carolina came to Georgia as part of the outreach for this project. On May 30th, the group visited the J. Phil Campbell, Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center. After a welcome by the Center’s Research Leader, Dr. Wayne Reeves, the group visited various research projects in the field related to cropping alternatives and water quality including, water quality responses to grazing and poultry litter use, how crop production affects hydrology, effects of alternate shade and water sources on water quality, winter feeding practices to reduce erosion, and the potential for mixed cropping and grazing systems. The group had a dinner with local farmers and listened to a talk on how TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) can and do affect agricultural production. This presentation stimulated a discussion of best management practices and their effectiveness in both Georgia and North Carolina. On day two of the tour the group visited several farms participating in the SARE grant. Dr. Franklin gave an overview of the WATER/FAIR Project. The Oconee County extension agent, Mr. Henry Hibbs, gave an overview of the bermudagrass/rye system being used on the two of the farms and its effect on water quality. The group next looked at the alfalfa work conducted on one of the Oconee County farms and discussed the potential to use alfalfa as a high value hay for horses and small ruminants. At one of the farms testing pearl millet, the group had a boxed lunch and looked at a pearl millet field drilled in after grazing of a winter rye. Some of the problems seen with weed competition were discussed as well as winter grazing management. The last stop was at the other pearl millet field was being tested. Dr. Jeff Wilson gave a presentation on pearl millet and fielded questions. The group discussion centered on pearl millet establishment and the challenges of getting a good stand with drilling into a winter cover in the fine-textured soils of the Piedmont. Numerous pictures and some video were taken of the two-day tour activities, which are being developed into a powerpoint presentation.

Water Quality Analyses
The laboratory has completed all runoff samples, is currently working on the base flow samples which are expected to be completed by the end of July. Once base flow samples are completed, storm flow samples will be completed. Sample analysis is for Total N, Total P, PO4-P, NH4, and NO3.

Drs. Curt Lacy and Cesar Escalante:

Interviews with the participating farmers were conducted by academic professionals and by Carter Dunn (affiliations are listed below). These interviews are designed to validate the production and financial information recorded by the farmers and to clarify other issues related to the implementation of the proposed management practices. Farmer interviews began on May 1, 2007 and have to date resulted in one poster presentation (see below) and in part, one Master’s thesis by Carter Dunn (in process) led by Drs. C.L. Escalante and R.C. Lacy on primarily the pearl millet farms. Preliminary results (pre-thesis defense) showed that Pearl Millet would be a viable alternative when pearl millet sells for a minimum of $3.50 per bushel.
Farm A Avg Farm B Avg Overall

Revenue $1,365.20 $3,413.00 2389.10
Yield/Acre (Lbs.) 4750.00 4750.00 4750.00
Yield/Acre (Bu) 82.61 82.61 82.61
Revenue/Acre $ 170.65 $ 170.65 $ 170.65
Total Cost/Acre $ 295.66 $ 270.45 $ 283.06
Average Net Revenue/Acre $(125.01) $(99.80) $ (112.41)

Break-even Price ($/#) $ 0.06 $ 0.06 $ 0.06
Break-even Price ($/Bushel) $ 3.58 $ 3.27 $ 3.43
Break-even Volume (Lbs.) 9,416.04 8,613.20 9,014.62

Price determinations are currently being determined for cereal rye. A poster titled: Determining the Profitability of Improving Water Quality on Farms in the Southeastern Piedmont Region of Georgia was presented at the “Southern Association of Agricultural Scientists” was presented in Dallas, TX , Feb. 4-8, 2008 ( by authors Amanda R. Ziehl1*, K. Carter Dunn1, Cesar L. Escalante1, R. Curt Lacy1, Dorcas H. Franklin2, and Julia W. Gaskin3. Abstract and author affiliations follow:

The Southeastern Piedmont (SEP) region of Georgia is a high nutrient status area for phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N). Previous research indicates certain farm practices utilize more P and N from the soil and/or decrease P and N runoff. With the objective to improve water quality, six farm fields in the SEP modified their pasture systems to become crop/forage rotation management systems (CFS). Farm enterprise budget analysis and statistical methods were used to determine and rank the profitability of each CFS.

1 Extension Economist, Graduate Research Assistant, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Georgia
2 Soil Scientist, USDA, J Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center
3 Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, University of Georgia
* Corresponding author: P.O. Box 1209, Tifton, GA 31793, (229) 386-3512, [email protected]

Agronomic and Water Quality Research
Agronomic (Georgia)-
Drs. Miguel Cabrera, Dwight Fisher, and Dory Franklin:
Control farms maintained the same farm practices as in the past with the exception of one farm which planted cereal rye in pastures in late fall 2007 to provide much needed forage for cattle after prolonged drought.

Stream water samples (both base and storm flow) are currently being analyzed. The bulk of runoff P analysis has been completed and is currently being summarized. Much of the summarization presented here was done to test the Georgia P Index in partial completion of Doctoral work by DavidM. Butler. Many of the results presented in this final report will be presented on an annual basis to better relate to the Georgia P Index and to help determine the impact of management practices tested in this grant. The main effects on P (both total and dissolved forms) were nutrient source, forage, and year. Annual changes in P loads from 2004 through 2007 were detected (Fig. 1). These changes are predominantly due to changes in annual runoff volume which in part may be related to rainfall (Fig. 2). In 2007 farmers on both the control fields and experimental fields experienced excessive drought. Average annual soil P across all fields increased significantly in 2007 while soil N decreased (Fig. 3). These changes were more dramatic on hay fields and overseeded pastures than on the pastures not overseeded or fertilized.

Forages, either pasture or hay showed significant differences. While pastures had significantly lower soil P, those same fields also had significantly higher P exports in runoff. These higher losses in P are primarily attributed to loafing areas at the edge-of-the-field. Overseeding whether it was done with Rye grass or rye grain also reduced P losses in runoff when compared to no overseeding (Fig. 6). Because of the drought both pearl millet farmers decided to harvest the pearl millet for hay. It was the only hay produced for both farmers. However, only one of the farmers could utilize the hay. The farmer that could not utilize the hay had forage nitrate tested four times prior to harvesting (after small rains) in hopes of harvesting hay but nitrate levels always exceeded acceptable levels for consumption. Only 20% of the pearl millet was harvested on one farm due to high nitrate levels. The cereal rye plantings were found to be exceedingly helpful in minimizing herd reductions due to drought.

North Carolina-
Dr. Matt Poore:
Sampling at the 5 farms in North Carolina was ended in March 2008, making for a 2-year sample collection period. Samples were taken from a total of 24 base-flow sampling locations, 36 storm flow collectors, and 6 small infield runoff collectors. We have collected approximately 1300 samples and the analysis is complete on 900 samples. While results of this effort are still preliminary, it is clear that there is a big variation in water quality exiting these farms, and that appears to be influenced by land management practices, including grazing management and fertility management. As we finish the analysis and conduct statistical analysis we will have good information to help producers understand how management can influence their impact on water quality. Laboratory analysis of the samples will take another 3 or 4 months, and then we will summarize and do statistical analysis on the data. A master’s student in Animal Science, Barry Foshee is working with the data summary.

The North Carolina portion of the farmer exchange also occurred in the last year. In June 2007 a group of 15 extension agents, producers, and other governmental advisors were hosted in North Carolina for a tour of value-added agricultural production systems with a focus on horse hay production and marketing. One focus of water quality work in Georgia has been to find high value crops that can be harvested and exported to remove excess soil nutrients, and with the increasing numbers of horses throughout the Piedmont region, horse hay is seen as an ideal mechanism to do this. The tour also highlighted other value-added agricultural enterprises including vegetable/cut flower production, agrotourism, and direct marketed beef.

Impacts to date include an invitation to share the WATER/FAIR project with the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association. Of notable importance: 1) Several farmers in the area have started alfalfa fields. One pure alfalfa and two with a bermunda/alfalfa mix. 2) We have become part of the Sourthern Consortium on Pearl Millet due to our on-farm testing of pearl millet. This work has helped us understand the need for further research in conservation tillage – Pearl millet. 3) In the late summer of 2005, Agrostar accepted our harvested pearl millet seed. In the spring of 2005 the manager said that if at least three people delivered pearl millet he would condition it for sale (he had one producer other than us requesting services). Because of our two producers Agrostar is now conditioning pearl millet for sale. It should also be pointed out that the pearl millet was not sold to the poultry industry in 2005. There are still several hurdles to overcome before pearl millet becomes a feed source for the poultry industry. We are however taking small steps in that direction. The North Carolina Exchange Farm Tour was a great success and evaluations of the WATER/FAIR portion of the tour were exceptional. Also of notable importance as a result of the NC tour producers in Oconee and Greene counties have gathered on two occasions to begin efforts on implementation of a value-added marketing group.

Tables, figures or graphs mentioned in this report are on file in the Southern SARE office.Contact Sue Blum at 770-229-3350 or [email protected] for a hard copy.

Figure 1. Annual P export from all fields.

Figure 2. Annual rainfall immediately north of the Greenbrier and Rose Creels, central within the combined watersheds, and south of the watersheds.

Figure 3. Soil phosphorus, ammonium and nitrate for all fields on an annual basis.

Figure 4. Dissolved phosphorus in runoff for all fields in hay and in pasture.

Figure 5. Dissolved phosphorus in runoff for fields overseeded with either ryegrass or cereal rye or not overseeded.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of the proposed work are to 1) evaluate crop/forage rotations which will serve the southeastern US market for beef production, “horse quality forage”, and poultry feed in agronomic and economic terms; 2) determine nutrient concentration in runoff and in stream water upstream and downstream of farm-fields with and without crop/forage rotations; 3) share results with agronomic and animal production farmer groups in Georgia and North Carolina, and develop information exchange tours between those groups.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Miguel Cabrera
  • Ceasar Escalante
  • Dwight Fisher
  • Julia Gaskin
  • Henry Hibbs
  • Curt Lacy
  • Matthew Poore
  • Larry Risse


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.