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Inorganic nitrogen losses to groundwater are minimal from two management-intensive grazing dairy farms in Maryland

  • Rachel E. Gilker (a1) and Ray R. Weil (a2)

With the advent of confined feeding systems and associated herd size increases, dairy farms have had to import more feed from off the farm, leading to on farm nutrient surpluses. Management-intensive grazing (MIG) is an alternative to confined feeding. Under MIG, the herd is rotated among small paddocks every 12–24 h for efficient conversion of forage into milk using grass pasture to provide most of the herd's nutritional needs. Previous research on MIG reported high concentrations of nitrate under grassed monolith lysimeters and grazed pastures. However, because of the high levels of nitrogen (N) fertilization and ponding of cow urine in lysimeters, these previous studies may have overestimated nitrate leaching losses from MIG systems as practiced in the mid-Atlantic region. To determine the extent of nitrate losses to groundwater under MIG in the mid-Atlantic, we sampled shallow groundwater biweekly for 3 yrs on six watersheds in three Maryland dairy farms, one confined and two MIG-based farms. Transects of nested piezometers and ceramic tipped suction lysimeters were installed in each watershed. Seasonal mean nitrate-N concentrations under the four grazed watersheds were generally lower than under the confined feeding farm watersheds and were generally below the widely used drinking water standard of 10 mg L−1. Average nitrate-N concentrations for all four grazed watersheds were between 4 and 7 mg L−1, while the two confined feeding farm watersheds averaged 7 and 11 mg L−1, indicating that the MIG system did not cause excessive nitrate leaching.

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