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Does Pasture Irrigation Increase Groundwater Contamination?

June 14, 2010

Research finds little to no transport of microbes from cow pastures into groundwater

Concern about microbial contamination of groundwater from foraging dairy cows has increased as spray irrigation practices in New Zealand have increased over the years. Bacteria capable of living in both animals and humans are commonly found in cow manure. Addressing the lack of research on the topic, a team of New Zealand researchers studied the transport of microbes from two spray irrigated dairy pastures into groundwater supplies.

The research team, reporting in the May-June 2010 Journal of Environmental Quality and published by the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America, found little to no transport of microbes due to spray irrigation application.
 
When irrigation applications were increased to simulate irrigation plus heavy rainfall, there was a small increase some forms of bacteria, notably E. coli. But other common bacteria were only detected at very low levels when fresh cow pats where subjected to this treatment.
 
The results of the study indicate a minimal impact of dairy farm pastures on microbial quality of groundwater as a result of spray irrigation.
 
Previous studies of flood irrigation, which apply much more water less efficiently than the spray irrigation systems used in this study, have been shown to cause high levels of groundwater contamination. No difference was noticed between two different spray irrigation systems, a traveling irrigator and center pivot. The researchers suggest that converting from flood irrigation to spray irrigation will reduce microbial contamination f groundwater and reduce environmental health risks.
 
The research team, lead by Murray Close of the Institute of Environmental Science & Research, along with scientists from Lincoln Ventures Ltd, and Lincoln University, was funded by the NZ Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, Environment Canterbury, Dairy Insight and the Sustainable Farming Fund (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry).
 
The research was also presented in Rotorua, New Zealand at the New Zealand Hydrological Society Annual Conference in November 2007 and, in combination with results from other irrigation regimes (flood irrigation), in Washington DC at the US EPA Symposium on Groundwater-Borne Infectious Disease, Etiologic Agents and Indicators in December 2008.
 

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at http://jeq.scijournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/39/3/824.

The Journal of Environmental Quality, http://jeq.scijournals.org is a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental quality in natural and agricultural ecosystems published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The Journal of Environmental Quality covers various aspects of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including terrestrial, atmospheric, and aquatic systems.

The American Society of Agronomy (ASA) www.agronomy.org, is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.

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