Environmental efforts stalled for farmers after wet spell

April 05, 1994|By Dan Kraut | Dan Kraut,Capital News Service

RUTHSBURG -- To keep animal waste from reaching the Chesapeake Bay, farmer Wayne McFarland built a tank to hold manure from 120 dairy cows.

When the corn, soy and alfalfa fields need fertilizing at his Queen Anne's County farm, Mr. McFarland can remove the waste and spread it. When the fields are frozen or adequately fertilized, the tanks store the waste -- up to six months' worth.

The problem for Mr. McFarland and the bay is that it has been more than six months since he spread manure. It's planting season, but the ground has been too wet for heavy manure-spreading equipment, leaving an overflow. And with the average cow producing 80 pounds of waste a day, there's a large and smelly problem.

Mr. McFarland is not alone.

Farmers across Maryland are finding that the recent wet spell is interfering with their environmental management efforts.

"There's an awful lot of things going on on farms beyond our control," Mr. McFarland said.

Tom Simpson, coordinator of Chesapeake Bay Agricultural Pro

grams for the University of Maryland, took a recent trip through Queen Anne's County to see what farmers are up against.

"They ain't perfect," Mr. Simpson said. "But overall, they're trying."

Chicken farmer Dan Shortall would have had his cover crops in, had the weather cooperated.

Cover crops such as alfalfa and hairy vetch sometimes are called "green manure." In seasons where no other crop is planted, they absorb nitrogen that otherwise would run off. When it is time for planting crops for feed and sale, the cover crop is plowed under, replenishing the soil.

This year, Mr. Shortall said, "I finished my soybeans one day, and it started raining."

Too little rain can be a problem for environmental management, too. Last spring, Ed Mason went so far as to have a soil test done to determine the right level of fertilizer for his corn. Then, the summer's drought left a corn crop too small to absorb all the nitrogen in the soil. Once the drought broke, the excess nitrogen ran off into the bay.

Mr. Simpson, tongue in cheek, puts the blame on Mr. Mason all the same: "He wasn't very careful. He didn't let it rain."

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