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Regulatory Challenges

by LISA DUCHENE

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Jeff Graybill and Ron Kopp stand in the rain on Stoneylawn Farms.  While an essential element for farming, rainfall presents ongoing challenges in preventing and controlling soil and nutrient loss.
PHOTO: STEVE WILLIAMS

As drying cornstalks rustle in the breeze of a bright and clear early October afternoon, Jeff Graybill pokes his finger into the Dauphin County soil beneath them, only miles from the Conewago Creek and the Susquehanna River. He looks for any sign of the liquid manure injected into this earth last spring. 

A few months earlier, Graybill, a Penn State extension educator, had been pleased to see a dark line in the soil along the corn’s roots, tracing the path where manure from the 250 cows on this family dairy farm, Stoneylawn Farms, had been injected into the soil. That dark line had indicated that the manure was staying put, feeding the corn crop, and thus was less of a threat to water quality.  On this October day, at least to the naked eye, that dark line was now gone, indicating no lasting effect of the minimal disturbance caused by injecting manure into this no-till soil. 

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Penn State Extension Educator Jeff Graybill examines line where manure had been injected into the soil.
PHOTO: STEVE WILLIAMS

While improved practices such as those used on Stoney Lawn Farms are helping to reduce these problems, nutrients from manure spread on Pennsylvania farm fields do contribute to water quality problems in Pennsylvania waters and the Chesapeake Bay. Manure’s vanishing act is a problem for the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest and most productive estuary. About a third of the land encompassed in the bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed drains from the heart of Pennsylvania into the Susquehanna River, supplying half the bay’s freshwater inflow. 

When nitrogen and phosphorus, the primary nutrients in manure, find their way into the bay, they lead to runaway algae growth, which blocks sunlight to underwater bay grasses, the nursery grounds for young fish. Decomposing algae strip the bay’s waters of oxygen, creating the “dead zones” blamed for the decline of hallmark species like blue crabs and oysters. 

Reducing nutrient pollution from surrounding farmland is critical to the bay’s restoration. Ron Kopp, who operates Stoneylawn Farms along with his brother and nephew, is well aware of the bay’s situation. “Conservation of the land has always been important on this farm,” says Kopp, who farms 800 acres and uses manure from his dairy cows to feed the corn, soybeans, alfalfa, hay, and other grasses grown on their land. 

From the time that Kopp’s father bought the farm in 1946, the family farmed the contours of the land to keep topsoil from washing away. In the 1980s, with funding from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Kopps built a manure storage pit and started terrace farming. About a decade ago they transitioned to a no-till system to keep topsoil and sediment, which also threaten water quality, from washing into the bay, and they use cover crops to prevent exposed soil in the winter. 

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Ron Kopp at Stoneylawn Farms.
PHOTO: STEVE WILLIAMS

Kopp also monitors his crops’ nitrogen demands and balances them with manure use. He consults agronomy tables for how much nitrogen his corn needs, then applies just that amount to minimize nutrient runoff. “It just makes sense,” he says. “We know manure has a value to us. If it’s applied properly and at the right rates we’ll have a better return, not only financially because we don’t have to purchase manure or fertilizer, but also in good crop yields.” 

Despite continuing efforts such as these by the agricultural community to reduce nutrient runoff, problems persist. Water quality was deemed “extremely poor” in 2009, meeting one-quarter of the goals established by the Chesapeake Bay Program, according to the May 2010 Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The document outlines the renewed federal focus on bay restoration triggered by President Obama’s May 2009 Executive Order declaring the bay a national treasure. 

Until now, regulatory focus has been on large agricultural operations. But, in a new effort to solve the decades-old problem of bay pollution, a new government initiative promises new incentives, policies, and regulations for about 40,000 small to medium Pennsylvania agricultural producers farming in the bay’s watershed. These farmers will now likely see vigorous enforcement of manure management plans. 

Pennsylvania’s Watershed Implementation Plan is essentially a game plan for achieving bay cleanup goals that simply haven’t been met through past efforts. With the drafting of a plan well under way, the manure management requirements as specified in the Department of Environmental Protection Manure Management Manual—a document that dictates how farmers handle the manure generated by their animals or imported onto their farms and requires farmers to document what they’ve done—are expected to be more strictly enforced for small to medium producers. 

So small-scale farmers, like Ron Kopp and his family, are watching and waiting to find out what exactly will be required. Kopp is concerned about what the new regulations might mean for his dairy operation. Up until now, for example, all manure management is balanced according to nitrogen levels. New regulations may bring more rigorous attention to phosphorus, a nutrient that, unlike nitrogen, can’t be easily “farmed out” of the soil with crops and cover crops. At typical application rates of manure, crops don’t use up all the phosphorus annually; it builds up in the soil, and it’s impossible to add manure without adding phosphorus. 

“As we move down the regulatory road and things get tighter and tighter, it’s going to be more difficult to meet those regulations. It will be a financial challenge, and it’s going to be a challenge to physically remove those nutrients from your farm,” says Kopp. “It’s going to be a learning curve. Most of the farmers should be receptive to it, if it’s presented right. If there’s good science behind it, I think most farmers will adopt the new practices.” 

Good science is where Penn State Extension comes in. The goal of research—like the manure-injection trials on Kopp’s farm—is to find techniques that deliver manure to plant roots, don’t disturb the soil, and minimize pollution and cost. Research results inform how extension educators advise farmers on how to deal with manure from their livestock and how to feed their crops without overfeeding the Chesapeake Bay. 

At Penn State’s Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Farm at Rock Springs, researchers measure all the potential pollution problems linked to manure spreading—nitrates, nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment, odor, and ammonia volatilization—that contribute to air pollution. “We’ve done the fundamental research,” says Doug Beegle, Distinguished Professor of Agronomy. “We’ve monitored the crops and what nitrogen is available, we’ve measured nutrient losses. Then we’ve taken our results to farmers and tried different techniques on real farms.” 

Although researchers have yet to discover a fool-proof solution, they have found that the most effective machinery for nutrient management is the shallow disc spreader, which Kopp is testing in his cornfield. The spreader slices into the ground, injects manure into the gap, and then presses the soil shut as it moves down the row—all with little soil disturbance. Though it’s not perfect, it has proved to be the most consistent technique in reducing nutrient loss to water and air. Equipment and labor costs for the shallow disc spreader, as well as benefit to the corn crop, are comparable to other techniques. 

Just as extension educators have advised farmers on nutrient management practices, they will help farmers comply with new regulations as they take shape. Extension advises the Department of Environmental Protection on the Manure Manual’s update, helping ensure that its requirements reflect the latest science and are practical for farmers. Now, with the advent of Pennsylvania’s Watershed Implementation Plan, those requirements are likely to be more rigorous, and stricter enforcement is also expected. 

Extension is also designing workshops that will be held throughout Pennsylvania and will walk farmers through the new, workbook-style Manure Manual. Ross Pifer, director of Penn State’s Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, advises farmers to watch Pennsylvania’s Watershed Implementation Plan process and take advantage of any cost-sharing programs to make conservation improvements.