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Nutrient and microbial loss in relation to timing of rainfall following surface application of dairy farm manure slurries to pasture.


Intensification of agricultural production systems and associated losses of nutrients, sediment and faecal microbes are often closely linked with declining water quality. Agricultural manure slurries are a significant source of nutrients and faecal microbes, and therefore pose a high risk to surface water quality, particularly in dairy-farming systems with confinement of large animals. Recent intensification of New Zealand farming systems has seen an increase in the quantity of solid effluent products collected (MacLeod and Moller 2006; Bolan et al. 2009). This is due to greater and more frequent use of feed-pads, stand-off facilities, animal shelters and farm dairy effluent (FDE; otherwise referred to as wash-down water) solid separation techniques (Houlbrooke et al. 2011).

Discharge of FDE to surface waters was largely phased out in most regions in New Zealand during the 1990s, and land application promoted as the preferred means of final treatment (Houlbrooke et al. 2004). Advice pertaining to the safe application of FDE to land in New Zealand has been documented (Houlbrooke and Monaghan 2010). However, application of manure slurries to pasture is a more recent concept, and therefore policy guiding good management practice is limited. In New Zealand, regulatory authorities tend to use a maximum permissible nitrogen (N) loading rate of 150kgN/ha.year for all dairy effluents, including manure slurries. However, ensuring that all potential environmental impacts, in particular surface runoff losses, are mitigated will require more informed guidance on tactical timing of surface-applied manure slurries (Smith et al. 2008).

When applied to pasture, a greater proportion of manure slurry will remain on the soil surface compared with FDE, which rapidly infiltrates into the pasture root-zone. Close correlation between the volume of manure slurry exposed on the soil surface and nutrient loss in surface runoff has previously been reported (Kleinman and Sharpley 2003). Application of manure slurry influences nutrient loss through a combined effect on runoff volume, detachment of particulate material and mobility of soluble forms (Withers et al. 2003). However, nutrient susceptibility to loss pathways declines quickly with time between application and first runoff event (Smith et al. 2007; Vadas et al. 2007). For instance, Preedy et al. (2001) reported that 1.8 kg phosphorus (P)/ha of 30kgP/ha (i.e. 6%) applied in dairy slurry to grassland was lost in runoff within 7 days of application. However, Mueller et al. (1984) reported that 2 months after manure application, the dissolved P concentration in surface runoff had decreased by 76%, indicating a decline in availability with time. Similarly, modelled losses of Escherichia coli in runoff from cow faeces were greatest when rainfall was received within 2 days, yet was minimal after 40 days (Muirhcad and Monaghan 2012). Therefore, timing of application to ensure a period of dry days before a runoff event is expected to reduce losses of nutrients and faecal microbes from land applied manure slurries.

This study aimed to (i) investigate the effect of time between application and the first runoff event on the nutrient and microbial losses from land-applied manure slurries, and (ii) determine how the nutrient loss in runoff varies with changes in solid content of the manure slurry product being applied.

Materials and methods


In total, 72 intact soil monoliths, including pasture cover, were collected from AgResearch's Invermay Farm, Otago, New Zealand. The site has been under permanent pasture grazed by sheep and had no history of irrigation. Soils are classified as a Mottled Fragic Pallic soil (New Zealand Soil Classification; Hewitt 1998), or an Aerie Fragiaquept (USDA Taxonomy; Soil Survey Staff 1998). Depth of soil above the fragipan layer was -400 mm. A representative soil sample was analysed for standard nutrient properties including pH (5.6) mineral-N (34 mg/kg dry soil), Olsen-P (12mg/L) and basic cations (MAF quick test values: calcium 8, potassium 4, magnesium 29 and sodium 7).

Rectangular blocks of soil (200 mm by 1 m) were excavated from a depth of 0-100 mm using a turf-cutting blade and method that preserved their natural soil structure. Soils were then placed in plywood boxes (200 mm wide by 800 mm long by 100 mm deep) lined with plastic sheeting to hydraulically seal the base and sides of the box. The experimental setup (i.e. sealed boxes) did not allow leaching to be measured separately from runoff. Therefore, Toss' as measured in surface runoff encompassed both shallow leaching (topsoil interflow) and surface runoff that may occur under field conditions, i.e. mimicking a soil with a shallow, dense subsoil layer.

Once removed from the ground, monoliths were stored under cover for ~5 weeks to allow soils to recover from minor disturbances that may have occurred during excavation. Water was applied two or three times a week to maintain grass growth and to prevent soil monoliths from drying out. The shelter used to house monoliths during the course of the experiment was covered to prevent uncontrolled rainfall yet open at the sides to allow natural wind and temperature fluctuations. Mean daily temperature across the 20-day trial duration was ~15[degrees]C.

For each treatment (including six periods until rainfall and four slurry dry matter (DM) contents), three replicated monoliths were included, totalling 72 monoliths (a full description of the treatments follows). At 24 h before application of manure slurry, soil monoliths were watered to approximately field capacity. A hand-held moisture probe verified soil moisture at 38-45% v/v (field capacity 45% v/v). Manure slurry, of differing DM contents, was then applied to the corresponding soil monolith (12 monoliths per slurry DM treatment). Applications were carried out by hand to ensure a uniform distribution on the soil surface.

Manure slurries

Effluent products including fresh manure, fresh urine and barn scrapings were collected from a Dairy Farm in Balclutha, South Otago. Total N and DM content of the manure, urine and scrapings were determined by an accredited commercial laboratory (Eurofins Scientific, Hamilton, New Zealand; IANZ accredited) within 48 h of being applied to soils. On the day of application, manure, urine and scrapings were mixed together at various ratios to provide four manure-sluny treatments with DM contents of ~3,7,9 and 14%, encompassing the range of DM contents in many manure slurries collected on New Zealand dairy farms (Houlbrooke et al. 2011).

Manure slurries were applied to soils at equivalent N loading rates of ~110kgN/ha. In the case of FDE (with <3% DM content; not included in this study), application volume in relation to the soil water deficit is an important determinate of hydraulic loading. However, in New Zealand manure and slurry applications are generally determined based on N loading rather than volume. Because of varying N contents found in each of the manure slurries, different volumes were applied in each DM treatment, ranging between 61 and 19 [m.sup.3]/ha (Table 1).

A sample was taken from each manure slurry at the time of application and analysed for total N, mineral-N, total P (TP) and total potassium (K.) concentrations and for DM content by Eurofins Scientific. Concentration of E. coli (most probable number (MPN)/100mL) of the manure slurries was also determined within 24 h of application, with the Colilert-Quanti-Tray system (IDEXX Laboratories, Westbrook, ME, USA). Concentration of E. coli was measured in this study because it is the preferred faecal bacteria indicator for freshwater in New Zealand (McBride et al. 1991). For E. coli analysis, manure slurry was diluted 1:10 w/w with sterile distilled water and blended in a domestic blender for 45 s. The characteristics of the three manure slurry products used in this study arc detailed in Table 2 and details of treatment loads in Table 1.

Surface runoff measurements

For each slurry DM treatment, simulated rainfall was applied to monoliths on the day of application, or 1, 2, 5, 10 or 20 days after application (note that soil moisture on the day of rainfall application varied across days due to evaporation that occurred since manure slurries were applied). Water was applied using a rainfall simulator consisting of one TeeJet 1/4HHSS30WSQ nozzle (Spraying Systems Co., Wheaton, IL, USA) positioned ~2.5 m above the soil surface to gain terminal velocity. An inline filter and pressure gauge were fitted to the apparatus, ensuring rainfall drop-size, velocity, and impact energies approximating natural rainfall. A sufficient volume of rainfall (tapwater, less than detection limit of 0.005 mg P/L, 0.002 mg ammonium-N (N[H.sub.4.sup.+]-N)/L, 0.010 mg nitrate-N (N[O.sub.3.sup.-] -N)/L) was applied to each monolith in order to generate saturation excess conditions (McDowell and Sharpley 2002; Srinivasan et al. 2007). To generate runoff conditions, additional rainfall was applied at a uniform intensity of ~25 mm/h for 20 min. In total, 16.5 mm (2.64 L) of rain was applied to each monolith. The 25 mm/h rainfall intensity has a return period of approximately twice per year for a 15-min duration.

Soil monoliths were placed on an aluminium frame, inclined at 5% slope, to enable surface runoff flow. Surface runoff was collected using a guttering system with a canopy to exclude direct input of rainfall; the guttering was mounted along the lowest edge of the runoff boxes and diverted flow into a PVC container. For each monolith, runoff volume collected in the PVC container was measured. Nutrient concentration of the runoff water was determined on a subsample sent to Eurofins Scientific. Analysis included total Kjeldahl N (TKN), TP and total K, determined from digested (unfiltered) samples and N[H.sub.4.sup.+]-N, N[O.sub.3.sup-]-N, nitrite-N (N[O.sub.2.sup-]-N), dissolved reactive P (DRP), total dissolved P (TDP) determined colourmctrically from filtered samples. Total N was calculated from the combined concentrations of TKN, N[O.sub.3.sup-]-N and N[O.sub.2]-N. Concentration of E. coli was determined at AgRescarch, Invcrmay, within 24 h of collection using the method described above, although samples were diluted 1 : 1 w/w with sterile distilled water.

Statistical analyses

Significance between treatments was determined by analysis of variance (ANOVA) (GENSTAT 11th edition; GENSTAT 2008) and least significant difference (l.s.d.) reported at P=0.05. Statistical difference in concentrations between slurry DM treatments was not analysed on day 1 due to considerable variation between replicates that would otherwise distort the average and statistical significance of the treatment effect.

Results and discussion

Volume of surface runoff

The volume of surface runoff collected on the respective days of rainfall application was not significantly different between slurry DM treatments (Fig. I). Minor disparity was likely to be caused by variation in soil characteristics and/or an uneven wetting pattern from the rainfall simulator. However, uneven rainfall application was minimised by measuring uniformity of rainfall distribution and accounting for variation through strategic positioning of the monoliths.

At the start of the experiment (i.e. days 0 and 1) the volume of runoff collected was generally similar to the amount applied (Fig. 1). This would be expected given that soils were close to field capacity. As the interval to first rainfall event increased, the percentage of applied rainfall collected as runoff decreased. We expect this was due to the greater soil water deficit that had developed, and therefore a greater portion of rainfall would have been stored in the soil profile. Interestingly, the runoff volume collected on day 20 was greater than that collected on days 5 and 10. We hypothesis the development of hydrophobic conditions or surface crust formation on the soil surface decreased surface infiltration (Barrington and Madramootoo 1989). Hydrophobic conditions are caused by organic compounds released from manure slurries during the decomposition of vegetative matter soon after (i.e. within 20 days) manure application (Pagliari et al. 2011). Dairy manure is particularly high in hydrophobic compounds that become increasingly exposed along the soil interface during drying (McDowell and Stewart 2005; Pagliari et al. 2011). Raindrop kinetic energy has also been shown to increase surface water runoff by promoting soil slaking and erosion processes (Wang et al. 2002). However, rainfall intensity was uniform for all events and therefore we expect such influences to be similar across days (McDowell and Sharpley 2002).

Loss of E. coli

For all slurry DM treatments, the concentration of E. coli in runoff was highest when application and rainfall occurred on the same day (Fig. 2). Concentrations declined significantly in response to days between manure slurry application and rainfall up to 10 days. However, further significant reductions in net losses were not apparent when left for a further 10 days before rainfall simulation on day 20. Under the transport mechanisms studied here, E. coli concentrations >1 x [10.sup.2]/100mL could be sustained for >20 days. This is less than E. coli concentrations in surface runoff from fresh dairy-cow excreta (1 x [10.sup.4]/100 mL) as reported by McDowell et al. (2006) with a similar setup. Reported E. coli concentrations in drainage from grazed dairy pastures (no effluent irrigation) range from 10 to [10.sup.4] MPN/ 100 mL and are similar to those observed here. However, the values are approximately one order of magnitude greater than might be expected from non-grazed soils (Muirhcad and Monaghan 2012). Importantly, the losses measured throughout this trial exceeded the recommended recreational limit for 'good' water quality of 260MPN/100mL for fresh waters in New Zealand (McBride et al. 1991).

On days 0, 1 and 2, DM content of the slurry had no significant effect on E. coli concentration in runoff. However, an inverse relationship between E. coli concentration and slurry DM content was apparent after day 2. This is likely to reflect greater E. coli loading with slurries of lower DM content because applications rates were based on N. Furthermore, the E. coli in slurry of lower DM are likely to be more mobile and can lead to an initially high concentration in surface runoff (Chadwick and Chen 2002; Muirhead and Monaghan 2012). Survival and therefore susceptibility to sustained loss (beyond 20 days) may be greater in slurry with higher DM, because of more prolonged periods of decomposition. For instance, Nicholson et al. (2005) reported more rapid E. coli die-off following application to a sandy loam soil of dairy slurry (DM 7%, 16 days) compared with manures (32% DM; 32 days).

Loss of nitrogen

For all slurry DM treatments, runoff N concentration was greatest on day 0 and declined significantly when rainfall was delayed by 1 and 2 days, respectively (Fig. 3). Initial runoff N concentration was lower from the 3% slurry DM treatment, presumably a result of greater infiltration relative to slurries with higher DM content (Kleinman et al. 2002). However, slurry DM content had no significant effect on N[H.sub.4.sup.+]-N or total N loss on days 5, 10 and 20. As the period until rainfall increased beyond 2 days, there was no further reduction (i.e. Z3>0.05) in runoff N concentration. Both organic and inorganic (primarily N[H.sub.4.sup.+]) forms of N were lost in response to applied manure slurries. However, the ratio total N :N[H.sub.4.sup.+]-N in runoff was ~5:1, indicating greater organic N loss. Mean N[O.sub.3.sup-] concentrations were generally low (i.e. consistently <5 mg N[O.sub.3.sup-]-N/L).

Although not measured, volatilisation of ammonia (N[H.sub.3]) during the 20-day trial period will be a significant N loss pathway correlated with slurry DM content and pH (Sommer and Olesen 1991; Webb et al. 2010). This can significantly lower the quantity of N[H.sub.4.sup.+] susceptible to loss via surface runoff (Sharpley 1997). However, there was no apparent influence of slurry DM content on N[H.sub.4.sup.+] loss, suggesting that if volatilisation was a major loss pathway then it was largely similar across all treatments.

As expected, greatest N loss (per ha equivalent basis) for all treatments occurred during the first and second flow events and ranged between 8 and 22kgN/ha, representing 7 and 21% of applied N (Fig. 4). By day 2, total N losses across all treatments were <5kgN/ha (9% of applied N) and remained low throughout the remainder of the trial. Limitations in the use of runoff boxes to represent paddock-scale processes should be recognised. These include a shallow depth of soil, which may underestimate the extent of nutrient and E. coli attenuation otherwise occurring in deeper soil profiles via adsorption, immobilisation and plant uptake, and less opportunity for mitigation because of the short pathway between the applied manure slurry and runoff collection point.

Loss of phosphorus

Phosphorus loss in runoff followed a similar trend to E. coli and N, whereby highest concentrations occurred during the first and second runoff events then declined significantly with Contaminant loss from dairy manure slurries applied to land prolonged time (Fig. 5). In a similar trial involving soils amended with manure slurries, Hanrahan et al. (2009) reported an 89% reduction in runoff P concentration when days since runoff increased from 2 to 5 days. This compares well with our observations indicating up to a 76% (slurry DM 7%) reduction in P concentration between day 1 and 5. Longer periods between manure slurry application and rainfall had no significant (P<0.05) effect on subsequent P concentration in runoff.

A significant effect of slurry DM content on total P concentration in runoff was apparent on days 0, 10 and 20. On day 0, the concentration of P in runoff from the 7% slurry DM treatment was significantly higher than in other treatments. Given the similar P loading across all treatments, we expect that this high P concentration relates to the specific composition of the applied manure slurry, particularly the ratio of dissolved P to total P. Although this was not measured in the applied manure slurries, the fraction of TDP in runoff on the day of application comprised 40% of total P for the 7% slurry DM treatment, as opposed to 36% for the 3, 9 and 14% DM treatments.

Greater DM content in slurry had a significant (P<0.05) effect on runoff P concentration when rainfall was applied after 10 or 20 days. On day 20, P concentration from the 14% slurry DM treatment was significantly (P < 0.05) greater, by as much as 35%, than on day 10. We hypothesis that this, as well as a close relationship between slurry DM content and P concentration, was due to the chemical and physical breakdown of the manure products and subsequent release of water-soluble P (McDowell 2006). Chemical factors include increased sorption of P within the manure slurry during drying and soil immobilisation and mineralisation processes, and physical factors include timing and intensity of rainfall (McDowell and Stewart 2005; Shigaki et al. 2007; Smith et al. 2007).

Higher concentrations of TDP in response to greater time since runoff further suggests manure slurries undergo breakdown processes (Fig. 6). For instance, on the day of application, TDP comprised -36% of total P loss, yet on day 20, TDP accounted for -93% of total P loss. Hanrahan et al. (2009) reported a significant increase in DRP fractions, as a proportion of total P, within 9 days of manure application. After 14 months, Vadas et al. (2007) reported that up to 60% of manure P had transformed from a non-water extractable form to water-extractable form. However, the overall decline in total P concentration in runoff indicates that dissolved P was not the dominant influence of overall P loss (Kleinman and Sharpley 2003). Chemical and physical breakdown processes enable greater movement of soluble P into the soil matrix, where it is subject to soil sorption, immobilisation and plant uptake (Kleinman and Sharpley 2003; McDowell 2006; Vadas et al. 2007). In our trial design, these soil and plant processes were limited by the depth of soil held within the runoff boxes. However, in a field situation where soil depth is greater, more P applied with manure slurry may be attenuated via adsorption or immobilisation or be taken up by plants.

Physical impact of rainfall soon after manure slurry application will influence P loss, especially particulate P (Hanrahan et al. 2009; Sporre-Moeny et al. 2004). For instance Shigaki et al. (2007) reported a significant effect of rainfall intensity (range 25-75 mm/h) on P loss when it occurred within 1 day of application, yet no effect when applied after 21 days. This indicates that as time between manure slurry application and the runoff event increased, breakdown processes resulted in more water-soluble P in runoff and less particulate P. However, total losses generally decreased because of greater soil contact of these more mobile P forms.

Loss of P will generally be greater if soil P status at the time of manure slurry application is high (Pote et al. 1999; McDowell and Condron 2004; Hahn et al. 2012). Unfortunately in our experiment, it is difficult to separate the relative P contribution from soil and manure slurry, owing to the nature of the runoff boxes we have used. However, Olsen-P was very low before application of manure slurries (i.e. 12mg/L, Table 1) and considerably less than optimal Olsen-P concentration for sedimentary soils, which range from 20 to 30mg/L (Roberts and Morton 1999). Therefore, we expect the contribution from soil to be low compared with losses from applied manure slurries. Furthermore, we would expect any contribution of soil to have been similar across all manure slurry DM treatments.

Loss of P, per ha equivalent, was greatest on day 0, particularly for the 7% slurry DM treatment (9.24kg P/ha, Fig. 7) presumably because of the high dissolved fraction as discussed above. Losses on day 0 ranged between 2.2 and 5.3kg P/ha for the other slurry DM treatments, similar to P loss from a 'poorly timed' application of effluent, i.e. 25 mm applied to soils with minimal soil water deficit (Houlbrooke et al. 2004). Total P loss decreased considerably when the period since rainfall increased to [greater than or equal to] 2 days and was ~0.9-1.5kg P/ha across all treatments (~1.5% of amount applied). Annual P yields from grazed dairy pastures, as reported by Houlbrooke et al. (2008), were -0.65 kg P/ha. However, P yields from the effluent block under deferred irrigation practice were -160% higher, at 1.68 kg P/ha. Our estimates of total P loss from the single application of manure slurry are comparable to reported yields from effluent, particularly when the time between application and rainfall was [greater than or equal to] 2 days. However, a degree of error associated with extrapolating from our small runoff boxes to paddock scale should be acknowledged. A positive relationship between slurry DM content and total P loss was apparent when rainfall was delayed by 20 days. This, we expect, relates to the manure slurry breakdown processes taking place between days 10 and 20 (as discussed above) and greater runoff volume from possible development of hydrophobic conditions on the soil surface.

Loss of potassium

Slurry DM content had a significant effect on runoff K concentration for all rain events (Fig. 8) and runoff K decreased significantly as the time since rainfall increased to 1 and 2 days. For the 3, 7 and 9% slurry DM treatments, K concentration remained similar for runoff events occurring 2 or more days after application. However, there was an increase in K concentration from the 14% slurry DM treatment when the period between application and rainfall was 20 days, which would reflect the breakdown of the manure slurry product as discussed above. Lower runoff K concentrations from the 3 and 7% slurry DM treatments likely reflect greater infiltration of these products immediately following application, and therefore reduced exposure time at the soil surface. Total K. mobilised in surface runoff as a percentage of the amount applied was high compared with E. coli, N and P, because of the greater mobility of this ion, which is primarily found in cow urine as opposed to faeces (Doblinski et al. 2010). This represents a loss in nutrient resource rather than a risk to surface water quality (Alfaro et al. 2004).


The risk posed to surface water quality from manure slurries was greatest when rainfall, of sufficient quantity to generate surface runoff, was received within the first 2 days since application and rapidly declined thereafter. With regard to E. coli, the risk was greatest in the first 5 days post-application. In general, nutrient and E. coli loss remained constant as the time since runoff increased from 10 and 20 days. Generally, runoff concentration was not affected by slurry DM content. However, P loss decreased initially (i.e. 0-10 days) then increased between 10 and 20 days after manure slurry application, which is thought to reflect breakdown of the manure slurries. We hypothesise that hydrophobic conditions developed as manure slurries dried, and this influenced the volume of runoff. This issue requires further investigation because of the potential effect on total nutrient loss. While the risk posed to surface water quality from N loss in runoff will decrease with delay of rainfall, losses to atmosphere may increase, thereby representing a loss of resource. Studies from the United Kingdom recommend that slurries and manures are surface-applied to soils >10 days before rainfall, with an essential minimum of 2 days (Smith et al. 2001a, 2001b). Results gathered from this trial strongly support the need to ensure application of manure slurries at least 2 days before rainfall events that are likely to cause surface runoff, in order to limit nutrient and faecal microbe loss. There is a degree of imprecision associated with scaling up from runoff boxes to a paddock or farm scale. Therefore, further field-based studies are recommended to better quantify the influence of season, fertiliser, grazing habits, and rainfall intensity, duration and frequency on nutrient loss from manure slurries.

Received 24 December 2013, accepted 12 March 2014, published online 26 June 2014


The authors thank DairyNZ for funding the research, Wayne Worth for technical assistance and Neil Cox for statistical input.


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S. Laurenson (A,C) and D. J. Houlbrooke (B)

(A) AgResearch, Invermay Agriculture Centre, Private Bag 50034, Mosgiel 9053, New Zealand.

(B) AgResearch, Ruakura Research Centre, Private Bag 3123, Hamilton 3240, New Zealand.

(C) Corresponding author. Email:

Table 1. Loading volume ([m.sup.3]/ha) and rates
of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (kg/ha) applied
to soils in manure slurries

Min-N, Combined loading of N[H.sub.4.sup.+] -N, N[O.sub.3]
-N and N[O.sub.2] -N

Slurry dry    Volume   Total N    Min-N     Total P    Total K
matter (%)

3               61       115        53         28        79
7               38       102        25         25        69
9               27       117        43         23        107
14              19       114        34         23        102

Table 2. Nutrient and dry matter (DM) concentrations in the four
manure slurry treatments used in this study

All values expressed on a volumetric basis; MPN, most probable number

Slurry   Total-N    N[H.sub.    Total P   Total K      E. coli
DM (%)     (%)     4.sup.+]-N     (%)       (%)     ([log.sub.10]
                     (mg/L)                          MPN/ l00mL)

3         0.16        762        0.04      0.11         7.19
7         0.26        614        0.06      0.17         7.24
9         0.36        1353       0.07      0.33         6.94
14        0.51        1561       0.10      0.46         7.38
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Author:Laurenson, S.; Houlbrooke, D.J.
Publication:Soil Research
Article Type:Report
Date:Aug 1, 2014
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