WATER QUALITY IN MANAGEMENT INTENSIVE GRAZING AND CONFINED FEEDING DAIRY FARM WATERSHEDS
Gilker, Rachel Esther
Weil, Ray R.
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Dairy farm size has increased in the United States, while the profit margin has decreased. An alternative to confined feeding dairy farming is management intensive grazing (MIG), a grass-based system relying on rotational grazing for most of the herd's dietary requirements. Previous research has measured high levels of nitrate leaching under MIG, citing the liquid nature and high nitrogen (N) content of urine. However, this research included heavy N fertilizer applications or was conducted on monolith lysimeters with artificial leaching processes and did not accurately represent mid-Atlantic MIG dairy farms. Phosphorus (P) losses have typically been attributed to runoff and erosion but are now being ascribed to leaching as well. To measure the magnitude of N and P losses to groundwater, we sampled shallow groundwater and pore water on one confined feeding and two MIG-based Maryland dairy farms between 2001 and 2004. Transects of nested piezometers and ceramic-tipped suction lysimeters were installed in two watersheds on each farm. Two streams running through two of the grazed watersheds were also sampled to measure the effects of grazing on surface water. For three years, groundwater and surface water samples were collected biweekly and pore water was collected when conditions made it possible. Samples were analyzed for inorganic N and dissolved reactive P and were digested for determination of dissolved organic N and P, pools previously not considered major sources of nutrient loss. Seasonal mean nitrate concentrations under the grazed watersheds remained below the EPA maximum contaminant load of 10 mg L-1 with only two exceptions on the grazed watersheds. Mean nitrate concentrations in the four grazed watersheds ranged from 3 to 7.44 mg L-1. Nitrogen losses were closely correlated to farm N surpluses. Groundwater P concentrations exceeded the EPA surface water critical levels in all six watersheds. Geologic factors, rather than dairy farm management, played a large role in P losses. In all watersheds, substantial pools of dissolved organic N and P were measured in groundwater. Low nitrate losses under MIG as well as the environmental advantages inherent in a grass-based system make grazing a viable Best Management Practice.