U of A Division of Ag researchers detail first quarter work on Big Creek study

March 11, 2013
Contact Information:

Mary Hightower, Division of Agriculture communications
501-671-2126 / mhightower@uaex.edu

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sharpley lectures

Dr. Andrew Sharpley describes the research efforts to monitor the environmental health of a farm where hog manure is applied to pastures as fertilizer.
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crowd shot

Turnout for the discussion panel was standing room only.
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View the video recording of the panel discussion

Fast facts
• Big Creek Research and Extension Team presents 1st quarter study following weather delay
• Team details methods, preliminary findings

(725 words)

(Newsrooms: ‘VanDevender’ is pronounced ‘van DEH’-ven-der’)

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Members of the Big Creek Research and Extension Team studying a hog farm in the Buffalo River watershed on Tuesday presented details about its work so far and fielded pointed questions about what’s been done and what’s ahead.

More than 120 attended the presentation, with participants standing at the back and sitting in the aisles at the Hembree Auditorium on the University of Arkansas campus.

Andrew Sharpley, team leader and professor at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, made the presentation along with Karl VanDevender, professor/extension agricultural engineer and Mike Daniels, professor/extension water quality and nutrient specialist.

Sharpley made it clear to the audience that the university wasn’t a regulatory agency, and that the team did not go into the project with any preconceived ideas and was “charged to find the science … the science will dictate what goes on from here.”

“What the team learns here will be relevant to many other farms around the U.S.,” he said.

The presentation was followed by a question and answer period, where members of the team fielded a range of questions from the audience.

The presentation described the methods used to gain:
1) A detailed understanding of topography and geology of the area around the farm
2) An accurate picture of nutrients already in the soil
3) An accurate picture of the area’s water quality

The grid sampling was much more intense than what is usually taken, with samples varying from 3 to 6 feet below the surface. All research on the fields is done when the soil is dry to prevent damage to fields from research equipment or methods.

Sharpley said the team is looking at sustainability, “not just at this farm, but any farm in the U.S.”

“Manure is not a waste. It’s a resource that farmers will not value just for nutrients, but also for the organic matter” which is important to the health of the soil, he said.

Farmers face a juggling act, balance production, ensuring their cattle have enough to eat and trying to protect the environment, he said.

“An external panel will come in and review what we’ve done,” Sharpley said. “Our team is knowledgeable and experienced, but we don’t know everything. … We are having people come in from out of the state that don’t have a vested interest” in the farm.

Sharpley said the team would work with the panel to see what suggestions they might have and “we will put into operation.”

Water samples have been taken weekly and are all processed within 24 hours. “We’ve got to get that bacteria plated within eight hours,” he said. “This data would stand up to any scrutiny.”

Because the researchers can’t be there every day, they have installed automatic water samplers that collect when water flows. The U.S. Geological Survey said some of the waterway flows can rise very quickly and Sharpley said if it wasn’t for the autosamplers, there would be no way the researchers could get to the site in time to get those samples. Some will be sunk below ground to avoid being in the way of cattle grazing those fields; with GIS information on the location of each.

The future will also include dye tracing and a “biological assessment of the watershed to see how it fits into the all the other watersheds. Do we see the expected biological response that everyone in this room is concerned about,” he said.

The team fielded questions about the phosphorous index, the makeup of the external review panel and how geology plays into it. The team is using ground-penetrating radar to study subsurface topography known as karst. Early in the planning process a karst geologist was consulted.

The team was asked if Cargill, the company with whom the farming is working, had any input into the study. “Cargill has not been involved in what we’ve done … that would bias and tarnish what we would do on that farm,” Sharpley said.

Another in the audience questioned the use of state money on the project, accusing the university of being unable to be unbiased due to the farmer’s initial request for advice from the Cooperative Extension Service.

The team’s presentation, originally scheduled for March 4, had been postponed due to hazardous winter driving conditions.

The first quarter report, covering work conducted from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, is available online at http://arkansasagnews.uark.edu/bigcreekquarter1.pdf.

The study is being funded by the governor’s office and was approved by a legislative sub-committee last September.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability, marital or veteran status, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.