Finding ways to enhance water quality

Doug Warnock

Farmers and ranchers across the United States are under increasing pressure to limit nutrients from their land moving into streams, waterways and groundwater systems. Agricultural producers don’t want to lower water quality, but want to find ways to eliminate any pollution, while maintaining or enhancing their economic viability.

Jeff and Marsha Marley operate a beef and poultry farm in northwestern Arkansas and are participating in the Arkansas Discovery Farm Program. The Marley place is in the Upper White River watershed and includes grazing beef cattle on 1,200 acres of pasture and the operation of 10 poultry houses. Their farm is one of eight in Arkansas that volunteered to participate in this program. Marley’s farm was one of several places I visited while on a study tour of livestock operations in Arkansas recently.

The purpose of the Discovery Program is to conduct research and demonstrations on privately owned farms and ranches, evaluating the interaction between topography, soil type and water drainage characteristics and their impacts on both the environment and the economic stability of the agricultural enterprises. The program’s goal is to document and promote sustainable and viable farming and ranching systems that are cost effective and environmentally sound.

The Marleys are monitoring runoff from four poultry houses that goes into a three-acre pond. Also they monitor runoff from two poultry houses that flows through a pasture and into a creek, which flows into the White River. Their monitoring stations measure the nutrient and sediment amounts that enter the pond and the pasture before flowing into the creek. From this they can determine the amount of nutrients and sediment leaving the poultry houses and the ability of the pond and the pasture to trap pollutants and keep them out of the creek and out of the river.

Participating farms and ranches are temporary demonstration sites representing Arkansas agriculture. The sites are monitored for a five- to seven-year period. The initial baseline data collected includes the amounts of nitrate, phosphate and sediment content of runoff water associated with current management practices. As additional data is collected during the five to seven years, the managers may implement any changes they decide are desirable.

Partners in the Discovery Program include the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and Research, Natural Resources Conservation Service, conservation districts, Arkansas Farm Bureau, state commodity and grower organizations and several private companies.

This program gives producers the opportunity to try various methods of trapping pollutants and determining the efficiency of various practices in keeping soil and minerals on the farm and out of the water. It is a non-threating approach for experimentation and selection of ways to improve the ecosystem in which these producers live and work, while maintaining the economic viability of their farm or ranch.

Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He can be contacted at

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