UW researchers study farm-field runoff

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Madison, WI, October 3, 2002—The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding research at UW-Madison to study the loss of phosphorus from farm fields to waterways. The three-year grant will enable researchers from Soil Science, Biological Systems Engineering, Space Science and Engineering Center, and Agricultural and Applied Economics to measure phosphorus, mainly from manure, as it moves from fields to surface waters, where it promotes harmful algae blooms and endangers the lives of fishes and other stream inhabitants. Phosphorus is also believed to contribute to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

John Norman of Soil Science in the university’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences leads the research under the National Integrated Water Quality Program, directed by the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). The area of study is a watershed in Wisconsin’s Buffalo County, containing headwaters of two streams leading to Traverse Valley Creek, a Class 1 trout stream. In the area is a Discovery Farm, owned by Joe and Noel Bragger, partners in the study. The University of Wisconsin is establishing a network of operating, commercial Wisconsin farms as Discovery Farms to engage in best-practices research and demonstration projects. Besides the university researchers and farmers, agricultural consultants and government agencies will participate as well.

Key to quantifying results from the phosphorus study is a model developed by SSEC’s Christine Molling and George Diak and John Norman called the Precision Agricultural-Landscape Modeling System. Faculty from Cooperative Extension will help ensure that PALMS can be used to assess phosphorus loss from several commercial farm fields used to validate the model. The PALMS Model is designed to be used easily by agricultural consultants to farmers. Eventually, researchers hope to use PALMS to combine productivity, profitability and environmental issues and strengthen relationships between Cooperative Extension, agricultural consultants, state regulatory agencies and the agricultural research community.

The $548,000 grant will enable findings to be applied widely across the U.S. farm belt. The study is expected to be particularly useful in Wisconsin, whose hallmark dairy industry produces large amounts of phosphorus-bearing manure, most of which is spread over agricultural fields.

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