When I became dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State University last fall I made a commitment to responding to the needs of North Carolinians. Long before environmental issues began to appear in daily headlines, our College was exploring new research and education efforts to improve the natural resources that North Carolinians have depended on for generations. Our College's research, academic and extension mission will continue to focus on protecting and enhancing North Carolina's environment.
Our programs run the gamut of environmental topics from the development of educational curricula for animal and municipal waste managers to the education of tomorrow's leaders who will be making important policy decisions. Our efforts encompass agricultural, forest, industrial, homeowner and individual environmental needs. The breadth of our expertise provides a solid foundation for solutions that meet the breadth of citizens needs.
The Neuse Education Team is an important part of this foundation. This diverse team combines wide-rangeing experience and specialization to address the scope of educational needs present in the basin. Through partnering with key organizations, the team will help citizens engage in "solutions" thinking.
Partnering is a crucial part of this teams's present and future success. It is a key theme within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and it is exemplified in our College's work in the Neuse River Basin. When the Neuse rules pass, probably later this summer, working with state and local agencies as well as other organizations interested in the environment will be important in ensuring effective implementation of the rules.
Environmental concerns have impacted every facet of North Carolina - agribusiness, communities, industries, families and citizens. A public concern of this magnitude demands the attention and focus of the state's largest research, land-grant institution.
Dr. James Oblinger
Source. Amount. Placement. Timing. These four
ingredients are the essence of nutrient management. When the Neuse rules
pass later this year, nutrient management will clearly emerge as the greatest
educational challenge in the Neuse River Basin.
When applying nutri-ents to one residential lawn or one farm field it is hard for many people to believe that the nutrient excess that occurs has any significant impact on area water quality.
"But when you put all those farms and lawns together it is easy to see why nutrients are such a problem," says Dr. Deanna Osmond, Neuse Education Team specialist whose work focuses on nutrient management.
Fellow soil scientist Dr. Steve Hodges agrees. "Everyone is a contributor. All those lands are con-nected and drain to the streams and tributaries of the Neuse," he says.
Put simply, nutrient management is applying nutrients adequately to crops and by doing so using those nutrients in an environmentally sound manner. The purpose of nutrient management is to optimize yields while at the same time assuring that crops use nutrients as effi-ciently as possible. In the Neuse Basin, since nitrogen is the nutrient of concern, nutrient management is really nitrogen management. Nutrient management assures nitrogen is used efficiently by matching the appropriate nitrogen rate, the correct application technique, the right application times, and the best form of nitrogen management is a type of best management practice(BMP) that targets the source of the excess. Other BMPs - controlled drainage for example- involve reducing nutrients after they leave the field.
Why is nutrient management important in the Neuse River Basin?
Most annual crops do not use nitrogen efficiently. Even perennials, when overfertilized,use nitrogen poorly. On average, annual crops take up only 50% of the applied nitrogen. Generally, only about 30% of the nitrogen is taken off as the harvestable portion of the crop. This means that somewhere between 20-50% of applied nitrogen can be potentially lost. Since most applied nitrogen is changed to nitrate in soil-a form of nitrogen that is very mobile-any nitrogen that is not absorbed by plants can potentially be moved through the siol into the ground water which feeds our streams and tributaries. Nutrient management will serve as a preventive tool to help avoid this scenerio.
How does nutrient management fit in with the Neuse rules?
The Neuse rules will emphasize nutrient management education. Producers who opt out of the countywide plans must use nutrient management, with either controlled drainage or riparian buffers. In addition, all persons who apply fertilizer to 50 acres or more must attend nutrient management education. Fertilizer applicators are a diverse group of individuals: agricultural producers, fertilizer distributors, lawn care and landscaping professionals, golf course superintendants and state highway personnel. They will have one year after the rules are passed to sign up for the training. Applicators will then be expected to attend the training within 4 years that will be conducted by North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.
If nutrient management is a way to prevent
nutrient overdosing, then controlled drainage is therapy. The concept is
simple. By reducing the amount of water leaving a field, farmers reduce
the nitrogen that leaves as well.
"When farmers use con-trolled drainage, they take more control of their drainage water and the nitrogen cycle," says Dr. Robert Evans, a water management specialist at NC State University who has studied and researched con-trolled drainage for more than 15 years.
Controlled drainage is accomplished when water control structures are installed in drainage ditches. The control structure works something like a faucet. Boards are installed in the structure to regulate water flow, creating mini dams. When the water table - the depth or level to which the ground is saturated with water - is high, flow is unrestricted so as not to harm crops. During the summer however, when fish kills are known to be high, controlled drainage keeps the water in the field and the nutrients from entering an area's already fragile water system. "In our field studies, controlled drainage reduced the annual total nitrogen exiting in drainage water at the field edge by 9 pounds per acre per year or 45% on average," Evans says.
It works in two ways. First, con-trolled drainage reduces the volume of water leaving a field 20 - 30% on aver-age. During dry years, controlled drainage may completely eliminate out-flow. Second, controlled drainage sets the stage for better identification within the soil. Evans says that some of the studies he has been involved with have shown that nitrate-nitrogen concentrations have been 10 - 20% lower in outflow when compared with uncon-trolled systems.
Along with the water quality bene-fits of using controlled drainage, the farmer wins as well. For example, under controlled drainage corn and soybean yield increases of 10% have been mea-sured, with some farmers reporting even larger increases.
Farmers must take an active role in managing the water control structures. "This particular Best Management Prac-tice (BMP) gives them an opportunity to take more control of on-farm water and nitrogen management, but the flip side we must remember;" says Evans, "is that continual structure maintenance is necessary to ensure success. No produc-tion benefits are realized by the farmer nor water quality benefits to downstream water users when the boards are left out of the structure and lying on the ditch bank."
The state of North Carolina recog-nizes the water quality benefits from this practice by including it as one of the BMPs qualifying for financial assistance through the North Car-olina Agricultural Cost Share Program. Farmers electing to install water control structures on their farm can obtain 75 percent cost share assis-tance provided they agree to follow Natural Resource Conservation Service management standards for the next 10 years.
What does controlled drainage hold for the Neuse River Basin?
Evans says that roughly 450,000 acres of cropland in the Neuse River Basin have the potential for controlled drainage. This area represents the crop-land acreage within the Neuse Basin that has undergone stream channeliza-tion or other forms of drainage improvement in the past. Of that por-tion, the 175,000 acres situated primarily in the Lower Coastal Plain and Tidewater regions of the basin "should prove to show the same water quality benefits [as in his earlier studies] in regards to nitrogen impact," Evans says.
"Fields in the lower basin are flat, have been extensively drained, and thus have excellent potential for controlled drainage, he says. "In areas like Pam-lico, Craven and Jones counties it just doesn't make any sense not to be using controlled drainage."
Poultry litter management trainings a success
Animal waste is a resource. When 'managed properly, it promotes crop growth and reduces the need for commercial fertilizer. It contains impor-tant plant nutrients - nitrogen, for example - and can increase the amount of organic matter in soil. Increased organic matter can improve the soil's ability to retain nutrients and water.
Between October 1997 and April 1995, 32 specialists with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service conducted 125 Dry Poultry Litter Nutri-ent Management Workshops throughout the state. More than 3,000 poultry pro-ducers participated in the 3-hour work-shops which were held in 25 counties. Approximately 1000, of the producers farm in those Neuse River Basin.
Legislation now requires producers with dry poultry litter systems to: