Skip to main content
ARS Home » Midwest Area » St. Paul, Minnesota » Soil and Water Management Research » Research » Research Project #432419

Research Project: Developing Agricultural Practices to Protect Water Quality and Conserve Water and Soil Resources in the Upper Midwest United States

Location: Soil and Water Management Research

2021 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.

Progress Report
Subobjective 1a. Returned biochar samples have been analyzed for extractable metals as well as total carbon to nitrogen (C-N) ratio. This data is being utilized with the soil composition data to examine for correlations across multiple locations for biochar weathering characteristics. Additionally, statistical analyses are being conducted to determine if there are any feedstock/pyrolysis temperature dependencies on the biochar oxidation. Subobjective 1a. A control system has been developed to optimize relative humidity (RH) control during the biochar moisture sorption evaluation. This system was necessary to obtain more precise data on the rate of water sorption on biochar samples at defined relative humidity contents in the laboratory incubator. This system utilizes an Arduino microcontroller, which then controls air pumps which either moistens (through a water atomizer) or dries (through a desiccant trap) the air within the incubator. This system has been able to control the RH more precisely in the chamber (± 5%), which is superior to the control achieved with saturated salt solutions. Subobjective 1a. A manuscript was published detailing the selection of analytical instrumentation and software curve deconvolution algorithms on the results for carbon electron bond configurations in aged biochar samples. Additionally, the initial research data on the sorption of bicyclopyrone to a variety of soils was published this year. The most striking result of this sorption study was the lack of correlation with soil organic matter and the soil’s sorption capacity for bicyclopyrone. Subobjective 1b. Addition of a readily available carbon source to woodchip denitrifying bioreactors at four-fold flow rates doubled the nitrate-nitrogen (N) removal rate without increasing nitrous oxide (N2O) concentrations in the effluent. Follow-up experimentation is evaluating nitrate-N removal and N2O production rates for media with various C-N ratios and periodic aeration. The large three-bed bioreactor was re-charged with new woodchips and has been instrumented with high-resolution nitrate-N concentration sensors. A system to sense influent turbidity level and control flow has been excluding sediment from entering the bioreactors when sediment increases in tile flow. A watershed adjacent to the bioreactor watershed has been instrumented. Data from the watersheds, which includes high-resolution nitrate-N concentration, are being shared with the producers, who are interested in seeing the impacts of their application practices on water quality. Subobjective 2a. Experiments designed to evaluate the effectiveness of low-input turf and management practices of turfgrass filter strips to reduce contaminant transport with runoff were continued. Modifications to sample extraction and analysis methods were performed to accommodate changes in instrumentation and updated software. Extraction of contaminants of interest from the runoff and manifold water samples and their analytical quantification are ongoing. Subobjective 2b. An environmental assessment of U.S. dairy farms indicated that loss of reactive nitrogen is a significant industry challenge, with two-thirds of the losses in the form of ammonia. Dairy ammonia losses represent roughly one-fifth to one-fourth of the national ammonia emission inventories. The assessment was based on whole-farm modeling, led by ARS researchers at University Park, Pennsylvania, with our input on feed, crop, and manure management practices in the Midwest and input from other ARS units involved in the Dairy Agroecosystem Working Group (DAWG). Subobjective 2c. A new project has been initiated, funded by USDA-FSA (Farm Service Agency), to develop a new method, Water Parcel Tracking, for mapping how key water quality parameters can change as water flows downstream. In particular, we apply this approach to map nitrate concentration in small watersheds. These maps will be overlaid with maps of FSA-funded conservation practices to evaluate their effectiveness. Two graduate students have been hired to work on the project, and mapping has begun in two watersheds. Subobjective 2d. 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. Refinement of extraction and analysis methodologies and progress toward sample extraction and analysis are ongoing. The location of plots for evaluation of conventional and innovative urban agricultural systems were relocated and data and sample collection and analysis are ongoing. Objective 3. Deployment and collection of passive samplers and collection of grab water samples continued for an additional year towards a cooperative effort with several other Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) locations, led by the Lower Chesapeake Bay LTAR, to track the transport and fate of nitrogen in agricultural watersheds.

1. Soil sorption of bicyclopyrone is not controlled by organic matter content. Bicyclopyrone is a new herbicide that targets a specific enzyme reaction in plants and is particularly used for control of weeds that have become resistant to other herbicides. However, there is little known about the behavior of bicyclopyrone in the soil system, which is needed to determine its fate and transport. Therefore, ARS researchers at St. Paul, Minnesota, and Brookings, South Dakota, evaluated its binding across a wide collection of soils (25 total) that ranged in chemical properties. Our data demonstrated that there was no correlation between any of the soil properties measured (including organic matter) and the soil sorption capacities. This lack of correlation complicates prediction of risk of carryover and water contamination by bicyclopyrone. These results are significant to assist scientists, engineers, farmers, as well as provide evidence that the measured soil properties do not control the binding of bicyclopyrone in the environment; therefore, other potential regulating factors that may mitigate risk need to be investigated.

2. Turfgrass filter strips remove nitrogen from runoff, potentially reducing algal blooms. Fertilizer provides nutrients essential for plant growth. However, nitrate and ammonium, two forms of nitrogen found in chemical fertilizer, are very water soluble and readily transported with runoff from areas of application to surrounding surface waters. Excess nitrogen in surface waters can lead to aquatic plant and algal blooms that block light and consume dissolved oxygen as they degrade, leading to areas of hypoxia and fish kills. ARS researchers at St. Paul, Minnesota, conducted studies to evaluate the ability of a fine fescue mixture vegetative filter strip to reduce quantities of nitrate nitrogen and ammonium nitrogen transported with surface runoff. Measurement of nutrient concentrations in runoff at the entrance and exit of 50-ft vegetative filter strips revealed a 40 to 89% removal of nitrate nitrogen and a 77 to 98% removal of ammonium nitrogen depending on the mow height of the fine fescue turfgrass mixture. This research data is important to land managers to help support decisions toward enhanced environmental stewardship and to scientists for modeling larger scale impacts of implementing these mitigation measures.

Review Publications
Weyers, S.L., Gesch, R.W., Forella, F., Eberle, C.A., Thom, M.D., Matthees, H.L., Ott, M., Feyereisen, G.W., Strock, J.S. 2021. Surface runoff and nutrient dynamics in cover crop-soybean systems in the Upper Midwest. Journal of Environmental Quality. 50(1):158-171.
Ezzati, G., Healy, M.G., Christianson, L.E., Daly, K., Fenton, O., Feyereisen, G.W., Thornton, S., Callery, O. 2020. Use of rapid small-scale column tests for simultaneous prediction of phosphorus and nitrogen retention in large-scale filters. Journal of Water Process Engineering. 37. Article 101473.
Christianson, L.E., Cooke, R.A., Hay, C.H., Helmers, M.J., Feyereisen, G.W., Ranaivoson, A.Z., McMaine, J.T., McDaniel, R., Rosen, T.R., Pluer, W.T., Schipper, L.A., Dougherty, H., Robinson, R.J., Layden, I.A., Irvine-Brown, S.M., Manca, F., Dhaese, K., Nelissen, V., Von Ahnen, M. 2021. Effectiveness of denitrifying bioreactors on water pollutant reduction from agricultural areas. Transactions of the ASABE. 64(2):641-658.
Venterea, R.T., Clough, T.J., Coulter, J.A., Souza, E.F., Breuillin-Sessoms, F., Spokas, K.A., Sadowsky, M.J., Gupta, S.K., Bronson, K.F. 2021. Temperature alters dicyandiamide (DCD) efficacy for multiple reactive nitrogen species in urea-amended soils: Experiments and modeling. Soil Biology and Biochemistry. 160. Article 108341.
Ao, S., Russelle, M.P., Feyereisen, G.W., Varga, T., Coulter, J.A. 2020. Maize hybrid response to sustained moderate drought stress reveals clues for improved management. Agronomy. 10(9). Article 1374.
Feyereisen, G.W., Spokas, K.A., Strock, J.S., Mulla, D.J., Ranaivoson, A.Z., Coulter, J.A. 2020. Nitrate removal and nitrous oxide production from upflow and downflow column woodchip bioreactors. Agricultural and Environmental Letters. 5(1). Article e20024.
Gamiz, B., Lopez-Cabeza, R., Velarde, P., Spokas, K.A., Cox, L. 2020. Biochar changes the bioavailability and bioefficacy of the allelochemical coumarin in agricultural soils. Pest Management Science. 77(2):834-843.
Ippolito, J.A., Cui, L., Kammann, C., Wrage-Monnig, N., Estavillo, J.M., Fuertes-Mendizabal, T., Cayuela, M., Sigua, G.C., Novak, J.M., Spokas, K.A., Borchard, N. 2020. Feedstock choice, pyrolysis temperature and type influence biochar characteristics: a comprehensive meta-data analysis review. Biochar. 2:421-438.
Spokas, K.A., Schneider, S.K., Gamiz, B., Hall, K., Chen, W. 2021. Sorption and desorption of bicyclopyrone on soils. Agricultural and Environmental Letters. 5(1). Article e20039.
Munira, S., Dynes, J.J., Islam, M., Khan, F., Adesanya, T., Regier, T.Z., Spokas, K.A., Farenhorst, A. 2021. Relative proportions of organic carbon functional groups in biochars as influenced by spectral data collection and processing. Chemosphere. 283. Article 131023.
Souza, E., Rosen, C., Venterea, R.T. 2021. Co-application of DMPSA and NBPT with urea mitigates both nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching during irrigated potato production. Environmental Pollution. 284. Article 117124.
Schaefer, A., Werning, K., Hoover, N., Tschirner, U., Feyereisen, G.W., Moorman, T.B., Howe, A.C., Soupir, M.L. 2021. Impact of flow on woodchip properties and subsidence in denitrifying bioreactors. Agrosystems, Geosciences & Environment. 4(1). Article e20149.
Hansen, A.T., Campbell, T., Cho, S., Czuba, J.A., Dalzell, B.J., Dolph, C.L., Hawthorne, P.L., Rabotyagov, S., Lang, Z., Kumarasamy, K., Belmont, P., Finlay, J.C., Foufoula, E., Gran, K.B., Kling, C., Wilcock, P. 2021. Integrated assessment modeling reveals near-channel management as cost-effective to improve water quality in agricultural watersheds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 118(28). Article e2024912118.
Rotz, C.A., Stout, R.C., Leytem, A.B., Feyereisen, G.W., Waldrip, H., Thoma, G., Holly, M., Bjorneberg, D.L., Baker, J.M., Vadas, P.A., Kleinman, P.J. 2021. Environmental assessment of United States dairy farms. Journal of Cleaner Production. 315. Article 128153.
Ducey, T.F., Novak, J.M., Sigua, G.C., Ippolito, J.A., Rushmiller, H.C., Watts, D.W., Trippe, K.M., Spokas, K.A., Stone, K.C., Johnson, M.G. 2021. Microbial response to designer biochar and compost treatments for mining impacted soils. Biochar. 3:299-314.
Trippe, K.M., Manning, V., Reardon, C.L., Klein, A.M., Weidman, C.S., Ducey, T.F., Novak, J.M., Watts, D.W., Rushmiller, H.C., Spokas, K.A., Ippolito, J.A., Johnson, M.G. 2021. Phytostabilization of acidic mine tailings with biochar, biosolids, lime, and locally-sourced microbial inoculum: Do amendment mixtures influence plant growth, tailing chemistry, and microbial composition? Applied Soil Ecology. 165. Article 103962.