Managing material transfer and nutrient flow in an agricultural watershed

J Environ Qual. 2003 Mar-Apr;32(2):562-70. doi: 10.2134/jeq2003.5620.


Place-based resource management, such as watershed or ecosystem management, is being promoted to replace the media-focused approach for achieving water quality protection. We monitored the agricultural area of a 740-ha watershed to determine the nature and scale of farm material transfers, N and P balances, and farmer decisions that influenced them. Using field data and farmer interviews we found that 3 of 15 farms, emphasizing hog, dairy, or cash crops with poultry production, accounted for more than 80% of the inputs and outputs of N and P for the 362-ha agricultural area (332 ha of managed cropland and animal facilities). Feed for hogs (38% each of total N and P) and manure applied to fields as part of the cash crop and poultry operation (28 and 38% of total N and P, respectively) were the dominant inputs. No crops grown in the watershed were fed to animals in the watershed and more manure nutrients were applied from animals outside than from those in the watershed. A strategic decision by the hog farmer to begin marketing finished hogs changed the material transfers and nutrient balances more than tactical decisions by other farmers in allocating manure to cropland. Since the components of agricultural production were not all interconnected, the fundamental assumption of place-based management programs is not well-suited to this situation. Alternative approaches to managing the effect of agriculture on water quality should consider the organization of agricultural production and the role of strategic decisions in controlling farm nutrient balances.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Animal Feed
  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic
  • Decision Making
  • Fertilizers
  • Manure
  • Nitrogen / analysis*
  • Phosphorus / analysis*
  • Water Pollution / prevention & control*
  • Water Supply*


  • Fertilizers
  • Manure
  • Phosphorus
  • Nitrogen