Location: Soil and Water Management Research2020 Annual Report
1. Develop irrigation and drainage strategies in the North Central United States to protect water and soil resources a. Determine the potential of amendments to mitigate leaching and contamination of groundwater from agricultural operations. b. Identify materials and designs that will maximize contaminant removal from subsurface drainage water. 2. Identify and test innovative management practices to reduce potential adverse impacts on water quality or conserve water resources. a. Evaluate the effectiveness of low-input turf and management practices to reduce contaminant transport with runoff. b. Identify and test management practices to reduce reactive nitrogen leakage from dairy farming systems. c. Determine the impact of perenniallizing practices on the nutrient and water balances of corn/soybean systems. d. Determine the influence of management practices and water conservation strategies on water use and the occurrence and fate of contaminants in urban agriculture. 3. Conduct research as part of the LTAR network, and in concert with similar long-term, land-based research infrastructure in the U.S., use the Upper Mississippi River Basin LTAR site to improve the observational capabilities and data accessibility of the LTAR network and support research to sustain or enhance agricultural production and environmental quality in agroecosystems characteristic of the Upper Mississippi River Basin. Research and data collection are planned and implemented based on the LTAR site application and in accordance with the responsibilities outlined in the LTAR Shared Research Strategy, a living document that serves as a roadmap for LTAR implementation. Participation in the LTAR network and test innovative management practices to reduce potential adverse impacts on water quality or conserve water resources includes research and data management in support of the ARS GRACEnet and DAWG projects.
Protecting the integrity and supply of our water resources is one of the most important issues we will face this century and therefore the foundation of our project’s objectives (objectives 1 and 2). Our research approach requires laboratory to field scale investigations focusing on two strategies, prevention and mitigation. With the prevention strategy we will identify and understand the fate of potential water contaminants (e.g. agrochemicals: fertilizer, pesticides; anthropogenic compounds) and develop practices to prevent or minimize the off-site transport of contaminants from their site of application or point of origin. For instance, we will evaluate the fate of biochar and its efficacy as a soil amendment to reduce the leaching of agrochemicals (subobjective 1a), management practices to minimize agrochemical transport with storm runoff from low-input turf (subobjective 2a.1), and the occurrence of contaminants in urban agricultural systems and the influence of water conservation and management practices on contaminant availability (subobjective 2d). In addition, we will determine the influence of perennial cover crops and the use of different irrigation and nitrogen rates to reduce transport of nutrients with runoff and drainage from row crops subobjective 2c). Model simulations will also be used to predict nitrate loads in tile drainage from a concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) dairy and simulate the efficacy of alternative practices to reduce loads (subobjective 2b). In circumstances where contaminants are transported off-site with overland flow or leaching, mitigation strategies will be taken to remove contaminants from runoff and tile drainage before they reach surface waters or groundwater. Mitigation approaches include plot-scale studies to identify optimal buffer size and management of low-input turf for the removal of contaminants transported with runoff (subobjective 2a.2), while field and modeling experiments will identify the most effective bioreactor design and materials for removing nutrients from subsurface drainage water (subobjective 1b). Laboratory, field, and small watershed studies will be employed to enhance and extend the research that has been initiated to develop aspirational farming practices (ASP) for the Upper Mississippi River Basin and to compare their environmental and economic metrics against business as usual (BAU) farming practices in the region. Management practices that will be explored include maintenance of continuous living cover in sensitive locations on the landscape, and downstream or down-gradient practices that remove excess nutrients and reduce N2O emissions. Our multidisciplinary team and the interrelationship of our project subobjectives within and across these strategies will make progress towards the national goal for improved water resource security.
Laboratory analyses on the initial samples from the biochar aging citizen science experiment are continuing. Currently, the samples are being analyzed for the alteration in greenhouse gas production potentials and the alteration in sorbed cation species. Customized R-scripts have been developed to aid in the automation of data processing for the samples returned from the citizen science project. Data from four sites have been processed to date. All 12 aged biochar samples have been processed for water extractable metal content, but the samples are still waiting for instrument analysis. These aged biochar samples will also be analyzed by stable isotope mass spectrometry for alterations in the isotopic signatures of carbon and nitrogen for potential insights into the compositional alterations from soil aging. Additionally, research continued the development of Arduino based balance systems for monitoring the impact of biochar and water vapor. These systems can be enclosed in environments of known temperature, relative humidity and carbon dioxide concentrations, so the kinetics of the moisture sorption process can be determined on fresh and aged biochar samples. This work has demonstrated that the rate limiting step for moisture interaction with biochar is driven by the phase change (first order process) and not a diffusional limitation. For the first time, the fate of the allelochemical coumarin in unamended and soil amended with fresh and soil-aged biochar was determined. Biochar additions modified the soil’s retention capacity towards coumarin and consequently, changed its degradation and leaching patterns. The aging process did not alter the sorption capacity of biochar with respect to coumarin, likely, the increase in organic matter content was the dominant factor that controlled sorption of the compound instead of the surface chemistry alterations due to soil aging. There was no consistency between dissipation, leaching and application rate, which reveals the problems relating dissipation and mobility of natural compounds in soils, since they are rapidly degraded. Biochar additions enhanced coumarin’s activity only at high application rates. These results supply guidance for the use of biochar amendments as a promising tool for enhancing the activity of allelochemicals. The laboratory experiment to improve nutrient removal in denitrifying bioreactors by adding a readily available carbon source has been completed and summarized in a peer-reviewed journal article. The work showed that, by adding an acetate carbon source, flow through bioreactors can be increased by 3- to 4-fold without producing additional nitrous oxide. The three-bed bioreactor has been offline waiting planned renovation. During this time, watershed parameters continued to be monitored; data have been made available to producers and local conservation agency personnel to build awareness of management and weather impacts on water quality outcomes. Producers have been engaged several times to establish a working group willing to coordinate management change at a scale at which discernible improvement can be expected to be seen. To this end, permission has been obtained to deploy instrumentation on a neighboring, paired watershed to the one previously mentioned. Experiments are underway to provide an additional field season of data evaluating the effectiveness of low-input turf and management practices to reduce contaminant transport with runoff. Standard annual repairs were made to the experimental plots including the repositioning and testing of the runoff collection system and testing of the rainfall simulator and run-on manifold. Plots planted with a low-input fine fescue turfgrass are being managed as either a golf course fairway or residential lawn. Evaluation of flow data and water sample collection, extraction and analysis are ongoing. Modeling (Integrated Farming System Model) of reactive nitrogen losses from representative dairy farms for ten Midwestern states is progressing in collaboration with ARS researchers in University Park, Pennsylvania. Model inputs related to feed, crop, and manure management practices are being refined with input from researchers and extension personnel in each state. Collaboration with other ARS researchers in the Dairy Agroecosystem Working Group on other dairy-related environmental studies continues. We analyzed multiple years of evapotranspiration (ET) data from our Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) fields and our native prairie system. The data show that the order of annual ET use, from greatest to least, is living mulch system > conventional corn/soy > native prairie. We initiated a new experiment in the living mulch system to determine impacts of tillage and suppression management on soil nitrogen (N) cycling. Implementation of living mulch technology in the corn/soybean rotation will result in reduced offsite nitrate loss through higher ET, less drainage, less runoff, and more effective N use. Collection of soil samples from vacant lots continues, as well as efforts to identify and sample additional locations where urban food production is anticipated. Observation of established community gardens continues in order to identify currently utilized management practices and urban agricultural inputs. Testing and refinement of extraction and analysis methodologies are ongoing. These efforts will identify the occurrence of contaminants in urban agriculture and potential sources that will lead to the development of management practices to mitigate concerns and provide guidelines for healthy food production in areas with anthropogenic contaminants. A stable isotope mass spectrometer was purchased which will be used for both the improved analytical methodology for tracing carbon cycling (particularly envisioned to aid LTAR research efforts) as well as add improved mechanistic level research for nitrogen cycling. The stable isotope mass spectrometer was installed in the laboratory just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Two experiments initiated in 2019 were continued in 2020. The first is a cooperative effort with several other LTAR locations, led by the Lower Chesapeake Bay LTAR, to determine the lag time of watersheds with a novel technique. The second developed new methods to map nitrate concentrations in watersheds and related spatial differences to edge-of-field conservation practices.
1. Use of biochar to improve cation exchange capacity of soils. The ability to increase the nutrient holding capacity of soils is an important mechanism to improve the fertility of low productivity soils, particularly those located in humid and tropical regions. ARS researchers at Saint Paul, Minnesota, completed the laboratory experiments examining the impact of three different feedstocks that were used for biochar production at three different temperatures (350, 450, and 750 C). Feedstock, pyrolysis temperature, and application rate were key factors controlling the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of biochar-amended soils and increasing the fertility of the two Oxisols used in this study. High-ash biochar produced at low pyrolysis temperatures (<450 C) increases the soil CEC to the greatest extent. Interestingly, increases in soil CEC from biochar additions correlated with soil pH rather than with soil carbon. CEC of the amended soils can be estimated from the biochar CEC, rate, liming value, and the extent of soil acidity neutralization. In this short-term incubation study, aging is a minor factor controlling CEC of the biochar-treated soils. Overall, this study provides results that guide selecting biochars for specific agronomic and environmental applications, such as improving soil CEC.
2. Continental scale analysis of manure sources and sinks. Nutrient recycling is fundamental to sustainable agricultural systems. Few mechanisms exist, however, to ensure that surplus manure nutrients from confined animal feeding operations are transported for use in nutrient-deficient croplands. As a result, surplus manure nutrients concentrate in locations where they can threaten environmental health and devalue manure as a fertilizer resource. This study advances the concept of the “manureshed” – the geographic area surrounding one or more livestock operations where excess manure nutrients can be recycled for agricultural production. ARS scientists at Saint Paul, Minnesota, classified the 3109 counties of the contiguous United States by their capacity to either supply manure phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) (“sources”) or assimilate and remove excess P and N via crops (“sinks”). Manuresheds with source areas dominated by various combinations of confined hog, poultry, dairy, and beef industries differed in the transport distances needed to assimilate excess manure P (from 147 ± 51 km for a beef dominated manureshed to 368 ±140 km for a poultry dominated manureshed), highlighting the need for systems-level strategies to promote manure nutrient recycling that operate across local, county, regional and national scales.
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