Profitable alternatives to improve water quality from high nutrient status farms

2004 Annual 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

Profitable alternatives to improve water quality from high nutrient status farms


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.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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.


Four gatherings have been held since Phase II of the project Watershed Assessment Through Ecological Research/Farmers Active in Research (WATER/FAIR Phase II) was funded by USDA SARE and we consider each of these a milestone.

Gathering I – Titled “Lower Dollars, Where Do We Cut?” was done in two groups, researchers and educators gathered to determine what could be dropped from the proposal and the producers gathered to determine where they would like to see cuts. Decisions were made within both groups to reduce the number of acres planted and to reduce the number of months sampling would be undertaken. It was also decided that attainment of supplemental monies should be part of our concerted efforts so as to obtain as much impact as possible.

Funding for runoff and stream water (event and base flow) analysis was requested by the University of Georgia and obtained from USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation grants. This allowed for the water quality testing to be done for the full three years of the original grant.

Gathering II – Titled “ Which System to Implement?” This meeting uncovered real doubts and fears and a strong desire for greater understanding of pros and cons of the crops and forages that we had chosen to plant to export nutrients away from stream-side fields while gaining additional farm profits. Producers requested information on alfalfa, bermuda and pearl millet. Some of the interests were: which varieties work best for which soils, what problems from pests might be encountered, can these forages be grazed during any part of their growing season, what problems have been encountered in the past.

Gathering III – Titled “The Experts Tell All” . This meeting was not as well attended as hoped. Though planned in advance, steamy local election runoffs hindered attendance. The experts were none the less queried by the farmers in attendance with critical management, productivity and marketing questions. It was an incredibly productive meeting which led to an additional farmer meeting and planning of a farm tour.

Gathering IV Titled: “Putting it on the Ground” This meeting was very well attended. Producers discussed the management potentials, dilemmas, and solutions to the problems. We invited other producers from just outside the area that had some experience with the forages in question and had a farm tour of a profitable alfalfa farm. On the farm tour producers were able to see equipment adaptations which could facilitate collection and storage of higher quality forages. Following this meeting one on one farm meetings have taken place.

Decisions to Date
Producers have decided which integrated system they will be implementing. While we have more farms in Bermudagrass than originally anticipated we will also have more acres of pearl millet planted than anticipated. Only two farms will be planting the Alfalfa system.

Through these educational meetings and discussions with other producers WATER/FAIR producers have decided to go with Russell rather than the Alicia Bermudagrass variant.

Soil sampling has been done on all WATER/FAIR sites, nutrient applications will be done according to the nutrient requirement of the plant and according to soil test recommendations. Additional soil sampling to 120 cm was done prior to implementation of new integrated systems to determine if soil nutrient concentrations change as a result of these management systems.

Planting of millet and bermuda will begin May 1, 2005 and ground has already begun to be prepared for the alfalfa.

North Carolina (NC) farms are also being identified. Farm visits are planned for the week of April 18, 2005 and considerable interaction has taken place with several farmers in North Carolina. Producers there have requested, received, and discussed past water quality results found in the Georgia WATER/FAIR Phase I project. Contacts with the North Carolina Natural Resource Conservation Service have been made and they will join us on part of the NC farm selection tour.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

No Impacts are reported to date.


Larry Risse

Curt Lacy
Extension Economist
Univ. of Georgia
Rural Development Center
P O Box 1209
Tifton, GA 31793
Office Phone: 2293863512
Ceasar Escalante
Farm Finance and Production Economist
Univ. of Georgia
Dept. of Agricultural and Applied Economics
312 Conner Hall
Athens, GA 30602
Office Phone: 7065420740
Matthew Poore
Extension Ruminant Nutritionist
North Carolina State Univ
Dept. of Animal Science
Campus Box 7621
Raleigh, NC 27695
Office Phone: 9195157798
Julia Gaskin
Land Application Specialist
Univ. of Georgia
Bio & Ag Engineering
Driftmeir Engineering Bldg
Athens, GA 30602
Office Phone: 7065421401
Dwight Fisher
Rangeland Scientist
USDA-ARS J. Phil Campbell, Sr. NRCC
1420 Experiments Station Road
Watkinsville, GA 30677
Office Phone: 70676956312
Miguel Cabrera
Univ. of Georgia
Dept. of Crop & Soil Sciences
3111 Miller Plant Sciences Bldg
AThens, GA 30602
Office Phone: 7065421242
Henry Hibbs

Sr. Public Service Associate
Univ. of Georgia Cooperative Extension
Oconee County
Watkinsville, GA 30677
Office Phone: 7067693946