Arkansas Study Reports on Environmental Health of Pig Farm

ARKANSAS, US - Members of the Big Creek Research and Extension Team studying a hog farm in the Buffalo River watershed have presented details about its work so far and fielded pointed questions about what has been done and what is ahead.
calendar icon 17 March 2014
clock icon 5 minute read

More than 120 attended the recent presentation, with participants standing at the back and sitting in the aisles at the Hembree Auditorium on the University of Arkansas campus.

Andrew Sharpley, team leader and professor at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, made the presentation along with Karl VanDevender, professor/extension agricultural engineer and Mike Daniels, professor/extension water quality and nutrient specialist.

Professor Sharpley made it clear to the audience that the university wasn’t a regulatory agency, and that the team did not go into the project with any preconceived ideas and was “charged to find the science … the science will dictate what goes on from here.”

“What the team learns here will be relevant to many other farms around the US,” he said.

The presentation was followed by a question and answer period, where members of the team fielded a range of questions from the audience.

The presentation described the methods used to gain:

  • a detailed understanding of topography and geology of the area around the farm
  • an accurate picture of nutrients already in the soil and
  • an accurate picture of the area’s water quality

The grid sampling was much more intense than what is usually taken, with samples varying from three to six feet below the surface. All research on the fields is done when the soil is dry to prevent damage to fields from research equipment or methods.

Professor Sharpley said the team is looking at sustainability, “not just at this farm, but any farm in the US”.

“Manure is not a waste. It’s a resource that farmers will not value just for nutrients, but also for the organic matter” which is important to the health of the soil, he said.

Farmers face a juggling act, balance production, ensuring their cattle have enough to eat and trying to protect the environment, he said.

“An external panel will come in and review what we’ve done,” Professor Sharpley said. “Our team is knowledgeable and experienced, but we don’t know everything. We are having people come in from out of the state that don’t have a vested interest” in the farm.

He said the team would work with the panel to see what suggestions they might have and “we will put into operation.”

Water samples have been taken weekly and are all processed within 24 hours.

He explained: “We’ve got to get that bacteria plated within eight hours. This data would stand up to any scrutiny.”

Because the researchers cannot be there every day, they have installed automatic water samplers that collect when water flows. The US Geological Survey said some of the waterway flows can rise very quickly and Professor Sharpley said if it were not for the autosamplers, there would be no way the researchers could get to the site in time to get those samples. Some will be sunk below ground to avoid being in the way of cattle grazing those fields; with GIS information on the location of each.

The future will also include dye tracing and a “biological assessment of the watershed to see how it fits into the all the other watersheds. Do we see the expected biological response that everyone in this room is concerned about,” he said.

The team fielded questions about the phosphorous index, the make-up of the external review panel and how geology plays into it. The team is using ground-penetrating radar to study subsurface topography known as karst. Early in the planning process a karst geologist was consulted.

The team was asked if Cargill, the company with whom the farming is working, had any input into the study. “Cargill has not been involved in what we’ve done. That would bias and tarnish what we would do on that farm,” Professor Sharpley said.

Another in the audience questioned the use of state money on the project, accusing the university of being unable to be unbiased due to the farmer’s initial request for advice from the Cooperative Extension Service.

The team’s presentation, originally scheduled for 4 March, had been postponed due to hazardous winter driving conditions.

The first quarter report, covering work conducted from 1 October to 31 December 2013 is available online.

The study is being funded by the governor’s office and was approved by a legislative sub-committee last September.

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