ND Discovery Farms

An On-Farm Water Quality Project

Seven States Participate in the Arkansas Discovery Farms Tour

Last week, a small contingent of us from North Dakota attended the Arkansas Discovery Farms tour.  The tour started in Little Rock and focused on the area around Stuttgart.  The area we spent the most time in was called the Grand Prairie area where the primary crops grown are rice, cotton, corn and soybeans. 

The main monitoring focus of the Arkansas discovery Farms is on the dynamics of the irrigation water used in their flood irrigation systems.  Most of the producers try to recapture and recycle the irrigation water from their fields.  The concerns being investigated focus on irrigation efficiency and nutrient constituent loading to the water.  They have been collecting data just this year so it was too early in the process for any data discussion but we did get to see their equipment installations. 

We also had great conversations with their host farmers and since none of our group had much previous exposure to cotton or rice production, we learned a lot.  The Stuttgart area is also famous for duck hunting in the flooded fields and forests.  We got a chance to visit a duck lodge and learn how they are managing their water and timber resources as well.

All four of the states that are currently operating discovery farms projects, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Arkansas had a good contingent of attendees.  There is also a lot of interest by other states in adopting discovery farm projects which was apparent by the fact that Missouri, Louisiana and Tennessee were also represented at the tour.  In all, there were about 30 people on the tour and besides visiting the Arkansas producers, the attendees got to know each other and learn about water quality issues in the other states.


Web Pages Updated and Other News

So far, this summer has been quiet.  Not a lot of precipitation leading to very little edge of feedlot and field runoff at the Discovery Farm sites.  The summer seems to be following the spring.  Because of the low precipitation both this summer and last winter, the tile drain sites haven't been flowing for several months as well.

One brief note to mention is that our web pages have been updated.  Please check them out at www.ag.ndsu.edu/df and www.ag.ndsu.edu/nm where the layout has been cleaned up and you can bookmark them to periodically check for news.

Also, there was a successful Four-State Discovery Farms Symposium held at the National Water Conference in Portland, OR back in late May.  The states represented were; Wisconsin, North Dakota, Minnesota and Arkansas.  Attendance at the symposium was great and it was very interesting to see what story each state had to tell.  Even though each state has specific issues they are monitoring for, the overall direction and goal of each state program is to get a better understanding of water quality issues at the farm-level and keep the landowners fully engaged in the process.  There is another symposium coming up later this month at the Soil and Water Conservation Society National Meeting to be held in Fort Worth, TX.  This symposium will cover information from the same four states but will add information from Mississippi, which is just getting off the ground with Discovery Farms.


What a Difference a Year Makes

The spring runoff season in ND this year has been relatively quiet.  After dealing with record snowfall and spring runoff the last three springs, we have finally been experiencing a more normal if not below normal spring runoff event.  During the winter of 2010-2011, snowfall amounts averaged around 80 inches across the state.  The official numbers are not available for the current winter of 2011-2012 but I would be willing to place the total snowfall around 10-15 inches and that may be high. 

After visiting with the folks at USGS earlier this week, they have collected only a handful of runoff samples from the three Discovery Farm sites.  They mentioned how this spring they have been operating under a more normal routine versus being in a 24hr a day flood and emergency mode they experienced the previous three springs.

Another interesting twist to the mild winter was brought to my attention last week as well.  We have had the manure from the Carrington Research Extension Center livestock unit custom-applied both in the spring and fall the last three years.  Before hiring an applicator, we need to send out bid letters and hope to get at least two back so we can justify the hire.  Most years, the haulers are very busy and it can be a challenge to hire one on a timely basis. 

However, with the current mild winter, bedding use was less, leading to significantly less manure accumulation in the pens.  When I checked with the livestock unit manager about initiating the hauling bid process, I was told we will have enough land access to pile and compost most of this past winter’s manure and therefore, won’t need to hire a custom applicator until fall.  Several days after that conversation, I got a call from a local custom manure hauler who was looking for work.  That was one impact of a mild winter I never thought of before.

If you have questions about this entry or Discovery Farms, please contact Ron Wiederholt at ron.wiederholt@ndsu.edu or 701-652-2951.


Cover Crop Research Review a Success

Yesterday, over 70 people attended the “Cover Crops: The Science Behind the Numbers” conference in Bismarck. If you missed the meeting or want to review the presentations, we have uploaded them to the web at http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/carringtonrec/cover-crops-forum .  The goal of the meeting was to bring everyone up to speed with research based information about the impacts of cover crops.  There is a lot of talk about cover crops and a lot of producers using them but we have a real lack of good data on their impacts on soil health, crop responses, economics and livestock production.

Feedback after the meeting was very positive.  The general feeling was that we do have some good research backed information but we need to keep moving forward with our understanding of cover crops and their impacts on soil health and crop production.  There were attendees from three states and they provided great interaction with the speakers throughout the day. The meeting was put together by folks from the NDSU Extension Natural Resources Team. 


Putting Concentration Into Agronomic Perspective

I am relatively new to water quality sciences so when I hear a presentation outlining concentrations of constituents in a certain water sample, I am never sure how to put that into context.  A great example happened last week during the annual ND watershed coordinators conference.  I look forward to this meeting since I always learn something and it is a good time to reconnect with watershed coordinators across the state. 

One of the presentations focused on the concentration of varying nutrient constituents in eight livestock runoff containment ponds.  There was much discussion about the high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations in several of the containment ponds.  For example, the pond with the highest concentration levels had 50 mg/l of phosphorous and 160 mg/l of total nitrogen.  I was asked to respond to these levels and if producers could look at containment pond water as a source of fertilizer for crop fields.  I didn’t know how to answer the question because I had no idea what 160 mg/l of nitrogen means from a crop fertility perspective. 

From a manure management perspective, nutrients in liquid manure are reported as lbs/1000 gal.  After doing some investigating, I found that you can convert mg/l into lbs/1000 gal by multiplying the mg/l by 0.00835.  With that information and an application rate, we can then determine the agronomic level of nutrients in the containment water.  Containment pond water is typically irrigated onto crop fields through a pivot or a travelling gun.  To avoid over-saturation and runoff, application levels are usually 1 acre inch of liquid.  In 1 acre inch, there are 27,154 gallons.

Therefore, using the above conversion and rate of water application, if a farmer would apply one acre inch of the containment pond water that has a concentration of 160 mg/l nitrogen and 50 mg/l phosphorous, he would be applying 36 lbs of nitrogen/acre and 11 lbs of phosphorous/acre.  Those are numbers that can be easily credited and plugged into a nutrient management plan.

Some of the lower testing ponds had nitrogen concentrations of 4 mg/l and phosphorous at 3 mg/l.  Those levels would supply negligible levels of nutrients from an agronomic perspective.  When you look at the average levels of the 8 ponds and include the high outlier levels, the acre inch application level would lead to 15 lbs of nitrogen/acre and 5 lbs of phosphorous/acre.  Those are relatively low levels but still worth crediting in a nutrient management plan.

A point I am always trying to educate my audience on is that concentrations alone really don’t mean much unless you put some sort of flow or rate with them.  This exercise is a great example of why I try to always make that point when I am presenting nutrient loads (load is a product of concentration and flow rate of runoff) from the monitoring done on the ND Discovery Farms.


ND Water Monitoring Conference a Success!

It had been over 15 years since the last one, but a very successful water monitoring conference was held Feb. 27th-29th in Bismarck, ND.  For those of us who hadn’t been here for the last one, it was a tremendous learning experience.  Until you get all the water quality researchers in a state into one room, it is hard to understand how much good work is going on.

I was impressed with the breadth and depth of data that has been collected in the state.  We have a very good dataset of water quality parameters for most of the water bodies of concern.  The missing pieces have also been identified and work is ongoing to fill in the blanks.

If you wish to review any of the presentations, they have been loaded on the web and are available at http://www.ndwatermonit.org/2012Conference.html.  Kathleen Rowland from the USGS office in Bismarck gave a good presentation on some of the storm event data at the Underwood Discovery Farm.  I also presented a poster on the impacts of the project on the participating farmer’s decision-making and I will cover more of that in a future post.

The one outcome of the conference that dominated the discussion among attendees at the conclusion of the conference was—now that we have some good data, how do we use it?  It will be interesting to see the process unfold and where the data lead us.


Farm Signs Installed at Discovery Farms

After working through several designs and with input from multiple sources, we have finally gotten signage installed at 2 of the three Discovery Farms.  Signs have been mounted on the gaging station buildings at the Johannes and Bartholomay farms.  The sign at the Amann Ranch will be mounted on posts and will be installed in the spring.

 I know the farmers are happy to have the signs because folks are always asking what the buildings are for which leads them to a good discussion with the person asking.  The signs will help the public identify what is happening but may lead to more questions for the host farms.  It will be interesting to monitor the response to the signs and what the host farmers report. 



N.D. Discovery Farms Host Summer Tour

Below is the news release that was distributed regarding the recent North Dakota Discovery Farms Summer Tour.

The North Dakota Discovery Farms program welcomed researchers and farmers from throughout the state, as well as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Arkansas, during its summer tour July 13-14.

Discovery Farms are working farms or ranches. The owners have offered their operations as working research sites to evaluate the effectiveness of various practices to minimize environmental effects while maintaining farm profitability.

To date, the program consists of three sites: Johannes Farm and Feedlot, Underwood; Amann Family Ranch, Dazey; and Bartholomay Brothers Family Farms, Sheldon. Water quality topics, including edge-of-feedlot runoff and tile drainage, are the current focus of studies at those sites.

Tour participants viewed water quality monitoring equipment and learned about program developments from the farms’ owners and Ron Wiederholt, a North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Service nutrient management specialist and the North Dakota Discovery Farms program coordinator.

“Visiting North Dakota Discovery Farms was a great opportunity to see how monitoring programs operate in different states,” says Dennis Busch, research manager of the University of Wisconsin – Platteville Pioneer Farm. “It was also a great way to network with other professionals regarding their programs and to see firsthand the progress that North Dakota is making related to water monitoring.” 

Wiederholt found the tour equally beneficial.

“I was pleased to get a lot of feedback from our audience,” he says. “We had open discussions about site design, water collection, data analysis and management. Some of the researchers have been running similar programs for several years; their insight will be invaluable as our program moves forward.”

The North Dakota Discovery Farms program officially began in 2007 and is in a data collection phase. Once data is analyzed and interpreted, producers will coordinate with resource managers to implement the most feasible management practices for their respective operations.

“Ultimately, the program will help decision makers strike a balance between profitable agricultural production and protection of natural resources,” Wiederholt says.

The program is a cooperative effort involving NDSU, the North Dakota Department of Health and U.S. Geological Survey. For more information, contact Wiederholt at (701) 652-2951 or ron.wiederholt@ndsu.edu


The North Dakota Discovery Farms summer tour facilitates onsite discussion of water quality monitoring. Pictured (left to right) are Ron Wiederholt, Discovery Farms program coordinator, Carrington; Kent Bartholomay of Sheldon, one of the producers in the program; and Dennis Busch, tour attendee, Platteville, Wis.


New Communications Specialist!

Greetings! My name is Teresa Pierson, and I am the new North Dakota Discovery Farms Communications Specialist. I reside in Carrington, N.D., with my husband (Chris) and son (Nicholas). I grew up in the western part of ND on a family-operated commercial cattle ranch. Agriculture and writing are two of my passions, so I look forward to keeping you informed about this progressive project!  If you have questions about this post or other Discovery Farms entries, please contact me at teresa.pierson@ndsu.edu.


Canola Response to Manure Update

In a previous post data was shared on the behavior of manure nitrogen in the soil.  At the time of writing that post, the yield data of the canola planted in the trial was not available.  The data is back from the lab and similar to what we have seen with spring wheat, canola yields were lower when manure was used as a fertilizer versus commercial nitrogen fertilizer.  Table 1 shows that the manure treatments varied slightly amongst themselves but were mostly higher than no fertilizer but lower than the urea treatment.

Table 1.  Canola Yield Response to Manure and Commercial Fertilizer


Yield (lbs/acre)




Urea + S



1 Yr Manure application



2 Yr Manure application



p= 0.05


These results are not surprising since canola is a short season crop that has high fertilizer demands early in the growing season before spring applied manure nutrients have had a lot of time to mineralize.  This data is for year one of a two year study and it will be interesting to see how the spring wheat rotation crop does this coming growing season after the manure treatments have had a full year to mineralize. Stay tuned.

If you have any questions, please contact ron.wiederholt@ndsu.edu. 


Manure Impacts on Saline Soils

Excess soil salinity reduces soil productivity and creates management problems for crop producers and is one of the greatest challenges facing ND land managers. The addition of organic matter has been found to buffer or offset the severity of crop damage caused by salinity factors. Manure and composted manure are organic matter sources that not only increase soil fertility, but enhance soil chemical and physical properties. Additionally, soil conditioner products can be applied that claim to alleviate adverse soil characteristics. An exploratory demonstration was conducted by the Carrington Research Extension Center to gain a better perspective of soil salinity management with the addition of raw manure, composted manure, and selected soil conditioners.

Bedded cattle manure (manure) applications of 11, 23, and 45 tons/ac and composted cattle manure (compost) at 13, 24, 45 tons/ac were applied across demonstration strips in a highly saline plot area. The manure and compost were applied during the fall of 2009 and incorporated by a tandem disk. Soil conditioners were applied in the spring of 2010 which included Leonardite, APSA-80, Humi-Source and Monty’s Plant Food Liquid Carbon. Wheat was planted on the demonstration area May 19th, 2010 and stand counts were taken on June 14th.  Unfortunately, several days after the soil conditioners were applied that area of the plot was flooded by a heavy rain event and stayed flooded for several weeks.  Therefore, no stand counts were taken in that area of the plot and no other data was collected.

However, wheat establishment counts were recorded on the manure and compost portion of the demonstration area prior to the drown out event. This was only a demonstration so there were no statistics run on the data collected but the trends are interesting. According to table 1, there was a trend of lower plant populations as the compost or manure application rates increased across the demonstration area. Under both treatments, the lightest rate of application had the highest plant population and the heaviest rate of application had the lowest plant population. Without a replicated trial, we can’t draw any hard conclusions but these results lead us to believe that heavier applications of manure or compost add to the negative effects of salinity on plant germination and seedling survival. This could be due to adding even more salts to a saline soil system with the manure or compost.  A fully replicated trial to further investigate these outcomes will be established in 2011.

Table 1. Spring Wheat Plant Population Response to Manure and Compost Applications on Saline Soil 

 Treatment Application Rate (tons/acre) Plants/acre 
 Compost 13 624,360
24 464,640
45 435,600
 Manure 11  551,760 
23 551,760 
45 319,440 



Manure is a Money Maker

A multi-year study at the Carrington REC


has shown that spring wheat yields are lower when manure is used as the sole fertilizer source.  However, fall-applied manure can yield the greatest economic benefit.

The two year study showed that spring wheat yield and protein results for a urea treatment ranked highest (48 bu/ac, 15.3% protein), followed by fall-applied manure (45 bu/ac, 14.5% protein) then spring-applied manure (40 bu/ac, 14.1% protein), and finally the untreated check (30 bu/ac, 13.9% protein). To provide an economic perspective, nitrogen prices were factored into this study.  Area fertilizer dealers provided urea price quotes that equated to $0.45/lb of available nitrogen.  An $0.11/lb value of manure nitrogen was determined from manure fertility analysis combined with the cost of custom hauling and applying the manure at the Carrington Research Extension Center.  The nitrogen input costs were $67.50/ac for urea and $16.50/ac for manure treatments, respectively. 

Gross income was determined by multiplying the price of a bushel of wheat (discounted for protein) by the yield for each treatment.  By producing the most and highest quality wheat, the urea treatment grossed the highest at $273.60/ac for 48 bu/ac at $5.70/bu.  Gross income on the fall-applied manure treatment was $243.00/ac for 45 bu/ac at $5.40/bu, and the spring-applied manure treatment grossed $198.00/ac for 40 bu/ac at $4.85/bu.   The untreated check grossed $141.00/ac for 30 bu/ac at $4.80/bu.

Although the urea treatment grossed the most money the urea nitrogen bill was more than four times greater ($67.50/ac) than the manure treatments ($16.50/ac).  Calculating the net return (market price less nitrogen costs) on the use of the fertilizer shows fall-applied manure ($226.50/ac) netted the most with traditional urea ($206.10/ac) second, followed by spring-applied manure ($181.50/ac).  The untreated check ($141.00/ac) was last (Figure 1).

While urea fertilizer out produces manure when only yield is considered, fall-applied manure can return a greater profit per acre because of its cost effectiveness. As a side note, fall manure applications produce higher yields and better quality spring wheat than spring-applied manure.

Figure 1. Dollars netted per acre from various fertilizer treatments on spring wheat




Manure Fertilizer Lowers Soil Nitrogen Levels

After several years of researching the behavior of manure as a nitrogen fertilizer we have published several reports showing that manure works best as a nitrogen (N) fertilizer when used on a long season crop such as corn (http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/CarringtonREC/agronomy-1/copy_of_crop-index/Corn/fertility).  However, corn isn’t the only crop grown in ND.  To determine how manure fits into a typical ND rotation, a multi-year study was established at the Carrington Research Extension Center in 2010 to look at the response of a canola and wheat rotation to several different applications of manure.  This report showcases the response of the soil nitrogen to manure and urea fertilizer applications in the first year of the study when canola was grown.

A four treatment study was established in the spring of 2010 to look at the impact of a one year vs. a two year single application of manure on a canola and wheat rotation.  Besides treatments with no fertilizer and urea N fertilizer, there were two additional treatments.  One, where beef feedlot manure was applied only for the 2010 crop and a double application treatment to meet crop needs in 2010 and 2011.  In 2011, the urea N and single manure treatments will be the only treatments reapplied.  To determine the amount of N available in the soil over the study period, plant root simulator (PRS™) probes were inserted into the soil in each plot.  Three pairs (i.e., three cation- and three anion-exchange) of PRS™-probes were spread throughout each plot and then combined for analysis.  Another three pairs were placed individually in 6” by 26” root exclusion tubes to measure nutrient supply without root interference.  A cumulative measure of nutrient supply throughout the growing season was measured by removing buried PRS™-probes every 14 days (starting 27 days after planting) and then re-inserting fresh PRS™-probes in the same soil slot for a total of 4 burials.  The pulled probes were analyzed for soil nitrate levels.

When you look at Tables 1 and 2, root interference lowered the total amount of nitrogen in the soil compared to root exclusion under all treatments and the soil nitrogen levels followed the same pattern with the urea treatment showing a significantly higher total amount of N in the soil than the manure or check treatments regardless of root interference or exclusion.  On average, the manure treated plots had 71% and 60% less total soil N compared to the urea treatments for root interference and exclusion, respectively.

After conducting manure N mineralization trials over the last several years, the results of this study are not surprising.  It is becoming fairly clear that manure N mineralization is a season long and possibly a multi-year process.  Therefore, this study was set up to be a two year experiment with wheat as the rotation crop next year. Next year, similar measurements will be taken and hopefully we can draw some conclusion as to the behavior of the manure N mineralization in the second year after an application.  Please contact Ron Wiederholt (ron.wiederholt@ndsu.edu) with any questions about this post.

Table 1. Season Long Soil Nitrogen Response to Urea and Manure With Root Interference


Total N (µg/10 cm2/56 days)




Urea + Sulfur



Manure for 1 yr



Manure for 2 yr



Numbers followed by the same letter are not significantly different at p=0.05


Table 2. Season Long Soil Nitrogen Response to Urea and Manure With Root Exclusion


Total N (µg/10 cm2/56 days)




Urea + Sulfur



Manure for 1 yr



Manure for 2 yr



Numbers followed by the same letter are not significantly different at p=0.05


It's the Tail That Wags the Watershed


No Impact Greatest Impact 


Several weeks ago I was at a conference that focused on the science of monitoring non-point pollution.  It was a great event that showcased much of the latest work being done to figure out what is happening in agricultural and urban watersheds.  One of the speakers spent some time discussing how we have been going about addressing watershed issues.  There is a lot of debate in the water quality arena concerning broad-based watershed work versus targeted watershed work where you focus in on the problems and basically ignore the rest.

There is a lot of merit to both processes but what I found very interesting in the discussion and helps to explain the struggle agriculture has with non-point pollution issues, is the realization that environmental impacts follow a log-normal distribution.  When you look at a log-normal distribution, 90% or greater of the impacts take place under the left side of the curve or in the area of least impact.  What this means is that most of the weather events that take place have a small environmental impact.  Or, it’s only a few events in the tail of the curve that have the greatest impact.

Unfortunately, that’s the nature of non-point pollution.  It’s only one or two events a year that can cause all of the problems. That is a tough pill to swallow when a business has to make a change or spend money to prevent one thing from happening and it only happens infrequently.  However, if you can contain or lessen the impact of that one event in the tail of the curve, you can have a profoundly positive impact on the overall health of a watershed.

For questions or comments about this post or the blog, please contact Ron Wiederholt at ron.wiederholt@ndsu.edu.


Runoff Containment Pond Management

When to pump the runoff pond is one of the most important decisions in operating a manure management system.  Manure storage ponds are rather predictable. They fill at a steady rate and have little influence from precipitation.  Runoff ponds, however, can go from almost dry to full in a single rain event, and can swing from one extreme to the other from one year to the next.  A poor decision may result in a full pond, wet lots, potential overflow violations and costly emergency pumping. A good pond management plan will help minimize application costs while maximizing the value of the runoff water.   What makes up a “good” pond management plan is as varied as the climate in North Dakota and as unique as each runoff containment system.  However, one of the keys to any good plan is having the right tools to make appropriate management decisions.  One of these tools is the pond level marker.  This marker has two purposes. The first is to monitor the depth of water in the pond to see how fast it fills up. The second is to mark the Maximum Operating Level to know when the pond needs to be pumped.

One of the most common pond markers is simply a post painted with different colors every foot.  A saw mark or pin is placed at the maximum operating level, which indicates how full the pond can get and still be able to contain a one-time 25 yr/24 hr storm event for a beef feedlot. In ND, this storm event ranges from 3.5 inches to 4.2 inches in 24 hours.  To determine the elevation for your pond, contact the engineer who designed the system. . Another way to indicate pond elevation is to mark along the side slope. This works especially well if there is a concrete pad that runs along the pond. To mark one foot in vertical elevation, you must move along the side slope 27 inches for 2:1 slopes, 38 inches for 3:1 slopes or 49 inches for 4:1 slopes. If you have a pond with a compacted clay liner or synthetic liner, you won’t be able to just drive a post in for a marker since this would damage the liner.    In these situations, it is recommended to set the base of the marker in concrete and place the marker in the pond. The marker should be of a long-lasting, durable material that can stand up to the wet conditions and ice movement during the winter.

Once your marker is installed, you should regularly record the pond elevation and any rainfall, which is also a requirement for all large concentrated animal feeding operations.  Tracking the pond level and its response to rainfall will give you another tool for determining if the runoff pond needs to be pumped.   With this information you can make better management decisions this fall to avoid having an overflow next spring.

If you have questions about this post, please contact Karl Rockeman (krockema@state.nd.us), ND Dept. of Health.


Author: Ron

Copyright 2009, North Dakota State University