Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Precipitation-runoff relations and water-quality characteristics at edge-of-field stations, Discovery Farms and Pioneer Farm, Wisconsin, 2003-8

May 27, 2011

A cooperative study between the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison Discovery Farms program (Discovery Farms), and the UW-Platteville Pioneer Farm program (Pioneer Farm) was developed to identify typical ranges and magnitudes, temporal distributions, and principal factors affecting concentrations and yields of sediment, nutrients, and other selected constituents in runoff from agricultural fields. Hydrologic and water-quality data were collected year-round at 23 edge-of-field monitoring stations on 5 privately owned Discovery Farms and on Pioneer Farm during water years 2003-8. The studied farms represented landscapes, soils, and farming systems typical of livestock farms throughout southern Wisconsin. Each farm employed a variety of soil, nutrient, and water-conservation practices to help minimize sediment and nutrient losses from fields and to improve crop productivity. This report summarizes the precipitation-runoff relations and water-quality characteristics measured in edge-of-field runoff for 26 "farm years" (aggregate years of averaged station data from all 6 farms for varying monitoring periods). A relatively wide range of constituents typically found in agricultural runoff were measured: suspended sediment, phosphorus (total, particulate, dissolved reactive, and total dissolved), and nitrogen (total, nitrate plus nitrite, organic, ammonium, total Kjeldahl and total Kjeldahl-dissolved), chloride, total solids, total suspended solids, total volatile suspended solids, and total dissolved solids.

Mean annual precipitation was 32.8 inches for the study period, about 3 percent less than the 30-year mean. Overall mean annual runoff was 2.55 inches per year (about 8 percent of precipitation) and the distribution was nearly equal between periods of frozen ground (54 percent) and unfrozen ground (46 percent). Mean monthly runoff was highest during two periods: February to March and May to June. Ninety percent of annual runoff occurred between January and the end of June.

Event mean concentrations of suspended sediment in runoff during unfrozen-ground periods were significantly higher (p<0.05) than those during frozen-ground periods. Mean annual suspended-sediment yields ranged from about 3 to nearly 5,000 pounds per acre (lb/acre), with a mean yield of 667 lb/acre. Ninety percent of suspended sediment was yielded in runoff during unfrozen-ground periods. May and June alone contributed more than 80 percent of the overall yield.

Phosphorus concentrations and yields were also affected by the ground conditions at the time of runoff; however, unlike suspended sediment, phosphorus was usually available for transport in runoff regardless of ground condition. Mean annual total-phosphorus yields ranged from 0.03 to 7.0 lb/acre, with a mean yield of about 2.0 lb/acre. Nitrogen in runoff followed similar patterns to phosphorus in that concentrations were highest during unfrozen-ground periods, yields were highest during months of highest runoff, and speciation was affected by the ground conditions at the time of runoff. Mean annual total-nitrogen yields ranged from 0.11 to 19.2 lb/acre, and the mean was 7.2 lb/acre. Mean monthly total-nitrogen yields were strongly correlated with mean monthly total-phosphorus yields (r2= 0.92), indicating that the sources of nitrogen and phosphorus in runoff were likely similar.

Analysis of runoff, concentration, and yield data on annual, monthly, and seasonal time scales, when combined with precipitation, soil moisture, soil temperature, and on-farm field-activity information, revealed conditions in which runoff was most likely. The analysis also revealed the effects that field conditions and the timing of field-management activities-most notably, manure applications and tillage-had on the quantity and quality of surface runoff from agricultural fields.