Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Concentrations of nutrients at the water table beneath forage fields receiving seasonal applications of manure, Whatcom County, Washington, autumn 2011–spring 2015

October 26, 2018

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Whatcom Conservation District (WCD), collected groundwater-quality data for roughly 3 years (October 2011–May 2015) from near the water table beneath forage fields receiving regular seasonal applications of liquid dairy manure in Whatcom County, Washington. The work was done as part of an evaluation of WCD’s prototypical Application Risk Management (ARM) decision support system. The ARM system uses a combination of field-specific hydrology, stage of crop-growth, manure management practices, soil conditions, and precipitation forecast to evaluate the timing of manure application via a set of decision support tools (Manure Spreading Advisory, ARM Worksheet, manure application setback distances) in order to reduce the risk of contamination of surface water and groundwater. The ARM system’s effectiveness in reducing leaching of nitrate to groundwater was evaluated by monitoring nitrate concentrations in recently recharged groundwater beneath paired test plots receiving manure application scheduled using either conventional (CON) manure scheduling procedures, which utilize fixed start and end dates for manure application along with projected crop nutrient requirements or ARM manure scheduling procedures using an approach to manure application timing based on projected crop nutrient needs, field conditions, and weather forecast. Water-quality samples from the surface of the water table were collected synoptically from paired test plots (2–5 monitoring wells per test plot) at approximately monthly intervals at three different dairy field sites. Water-quality samples from near the water table were isolated from the underlying aquifer using a combination of an inflatable packer and a fine-grained sand pack encompassing the well-screen interval.

Concentrations of nitrate and chloride measured at the water table beneath test plots were highly variable. Concentrations of nitrate ranged from non-detectable to 116 milligrams nitrogen per liter (mg-N/L), and chloride ranged from 1.15 to 153 mg/L. In each test plot, seasonal variations were much greater than spatial variations. Differences in nitrate concentrations in groundwater between the two treatments were inconclusive. Nitrate concentrations in groundwater at paired treatment plots (Mann Whitney, p<0.05) were significantly lower beneath the ARM treatment plot at site B, yet significantly higher beneath the ARM treatment plot at site C. Nitrate concentrations in ground water varied significantly among individual wells at each site (Kruskal-Wallis, p<0.05), indicating that leaching of nitrates from soil following manure application is spatially variable at the field scale tested regardless of manure application strategy. At all three paired test plots, average concentrations of nitrate and chloride at the water table were lowest near the end of the growing season (September) and increased rapidly with the onset of autumn rains (October–December). Under both the conventional (calendar-based) and treatment (ARM-based) manure application scheduling systems, high soil nitrate concentrations in autumn were coincident with rising groundwater levels, suggesting that nitrate and chloride were flushed from soil to groundwater by recharge from the seasonal rains. Under both treatments, concentrations of nitrate in shallow (10–25 feet) groundwater beneath forage fields receiving manure applications were greater than the nitrate drinking water standard of 10 mg-N/L in approximately 85 percent of samples. Yearly mass loading of nitrogen to the groundwater system calculated from nitrate concentrations at the water table and estimates of recharge volume ranged from 86 to 196 pounds-N per acre, which was equivalent to approximately 16–37 percent of the recommended manure application rate for projected forage production yield of 7 dry tons per acre per year. Manure nitrogen applied in the autumn, when crop nutrient needs decrease due to reduced sunlight and cooler temperatures and commensurate with ongoing mineralization of soil organic-nitrogen and increased seasonal precipitation, are more likely to exceed the immediate plant nutritional requirements and hence be flushed to groundwater than manure applications occurring near the peak of the growing season.

Publication Year 2018
Title Concentrations of nutrients at the water table beneath forage fields receiving seasonal applications of manure, Whatcom County, Washington, autumn 2011–spring 2015
DOI 10.3133/sir20185124
Authors Stephen E. Cox, Andrew R. Spanjer, Raegan L. Huffman, Robert W. Black, Jack E. Barbash, Nichole M. Embertson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5124
Index ID sir20185124
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Washington Water Science Center