Kansas Watershed Specialists: Change the Practice, Solve the Problem
Kansas State University watershed specialists address livestock-related water quality issues by helping producers understand the impacts of management practices and how to change their behavior.
Watershed specialists have discovered cost effective best management practices (BMPs) that prevent surface water contamination at the source. They work with agricultural producers to reduce the impact on the state's water quality resources, while also improving the efficiency of their operation.
Nearly 500 square miles of Kansas is covered in water and a primary contaminant in the state's surface waters is fecal coliform bacteria.
"Fecal coliform bacteria lives in digestive tracts of warm-blooded animals," said Jeff Davidson, K-State watershed specialist. "One of the worst of these bacteria is E. coli, which can cause extreme sickness and death in humans. It can contaminate water through feces of animals, including cattle and wildlife."
According to the Kansas Farm Facts, in 2013 there were 1,328,000 beef cows and an estimated 2.3 million stocker cattle in the state.
Davidson said that behavior change in agriculture involves raising awareness of issues and problems, identifying options for action, securing technical and financial assistance, and helping implement new management practices. This is where the watershed specialists play a key role in achieving success.
If producers receive assistance in installing approved BMPs, said Davidson, they can then meet and correct pollution concerns, and water quality in the state can be restored and protected.
Watershed Specialist Program
In 2000, K-State, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and several farm organizations launched the watershed specialist program to assist landowners, producers, and local communities in voluntarily addressing water quality problems.
"Watershed specialists work to improve water quality through planning and adaptation of best management practices by producers, homeowners, and other landowners in targeted watersheds in Kansas," said Dan Devlin, director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE).
Devlin credits success of the watershed specialists program to ongoing information and education.
More than 3,000 contacts were made with citizens in 2013 and more than 100 educational events were conducted across Kansas to build awareness and increase the willingness of the public to implement water quality improvements. In addition, more than 90 one-on-one consultations and on-farm assessments also took place.
Changing the Way We Feed
Many cow-calf and smaller cattle operations use temporary feeding sites during the winter months.
A majority of these feeding sites use a stream or pond as the watering source, which can negatively impact water quality if the feeding pen is located where runoff from the pen can directly flow into a stream.
Producers have come to realize the importance of relocating these feeding sites to reduce mud and excess nutrient accumulation in a single area and change the method of feeding to reduce wastage and increase operational efficiency.
Changing the Way We Water
Ponds are the most common livestock watering source in Kansas. However, ponds with unlimited access to cattle potentially pose problems in terms of water quality and cattle health.
Cattle tend to stand in ponds on hot summer days and the resulting manure concentration in the pond increases the nutrient load and reduces the water quality.
Ponds with unlimited access have a shorter life, as cattle will cause bank erosion as they enter and exit the pond.
Limiting or controlling cattle's access to surface water is a cost effective method to reduce surface runoff, E. coli bacteria contamination, and streambank erosion, while improving cattle gains and general health of the herd.
Watershed specialists are helping producers learn how they can benefit from adding alternate water supplies.
"Research tells us that if we add an alternate water supply to a pasture with a stream, 80 percent of the drinking will occur at the tank or alternate water supply," said watershed specialist Herschel George, "resulting in a 98 percent reduction in phosphorus and a 56 percent reduction in nitrogen in the stream."