Forecasting the Fate of Fertiliser

US - Reducing the run-off from plant nutrients that can eventually wash into the Chesapeake Bay could someday be as easy as checking the weather forecast, thanks in part to work by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists.
calendar icon 19 August 2010
clock icon 3 minute read

One way farmers manage manure from their livestock is by applying it to crop fields, which increases soil levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. But when it rains, the nitrogen and phosphorus in freshly applied manure is much more likely to run off and pollute nearby water sources, which can end up degrading water quality throughout the watershed.

ARS hydraulic technician, Terry Troutman, collects a routine water sample in the Mahantango Creek Experimental Watershed, Klingerstown, Pennsylvania.

Hydrologist, Tony Buda, and soil scientist, Peter Kleinman, with USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are contributing to the development of a web-based 'fertilizer forecast'. The scientists want to create a tool that produces 24-hour and five-day run-off forecasts that are as user-friendly as weather forecasts.

The scientists are based at the ARS Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit in University Park, Pennsylvania. ARS is USDA's primary intramural scientific research agency.

The researchers are using National Weather Service (NWS) predictions of precipitation, soil moisture and other data to design a simple hydrological model that indicates the probability of field run-off occurrence. As part of this work, they are analysing how run-off measurements in different Pennsylvania regions correlate with different NWS data sets for the same areas.

For instance, the scientists have found that soil moisture forecasts are a strong indicator of nutrient run-off potential in fields underlain by fragipans, which are dense subsurface soil layers that can block water movement through soil. But at sites with other soil characteristics, run-off potential is much more strongly associated with other variables, such as forecasts of rainfall amounts.

The team hopes that when their 'forecast' is ready, it will give farmers a user-friendly tool that can be used to optimize fertiliser run-off management and enhance water quality.

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